This trip took place in 2002 during a very interesting time in our lives. Several months previously we had moved from Sydney to Spain and were now attempting to establish a retail business in downtown Barcelona. Spain being Spain, things were not going particularly well. An Australian lady by the name of Betta who ran a café near our rented apartment had befriended us and now invited us to stay over a long weekend for some much-needed rest and relaxation in the cottage she and her Catalan husband owned in Tavertet, a small, rustic village about one and a half hours drive north-west from Barcelona. Unbeknown to us when we accepted the invitation, her two small children, boys aged eight and eleven, were coming too. Here is what took place over those fateful four days:
It's late and there have been many delays, but we are very excited to be leaving our worries behind as we finally set off in Betta's car, me in the front passenger seat, Ian in the back. After trying to teach Ian the Spanish words for "dick", "ca-ca" and every possible variation of the word "bum", the kids start fighting. One of them (or both?) lets off continuous farts, and since no one else appears to notice I suffer in silence, but privately wonder at their lack of toilet training. The back of my seat is repeatedly kicked by the youngest one as they punch and shout at each other: when he sees how annoying this is to me, he proceeds to kick the back of my seat on a continuous basis for as long as he can remember to do so. After about half an hour of chaos, their mother becomes annoyed and asks Ian to sit between them. Peace and quiet reign for approximately 15 minutes.
The kids are now bored and start playing with the chewing gum they have been eating. I turn from the front seat to see that gum is stretched between their hands from one side of the car to the other. It even covers Ian in places. He finally protests because he is wearing a rather nice shirt, and Betta yells at them to stop. The eldest boy proceeds to gather up all the chewing gum and diligently wraps it in hundreds of fine strands around his hands and fingers. The youngest resumes kicking the back of my seat.
The eldest boy has been staring fixedly at the chewing gum covering his hands and is now carsick. He makes it out just in time and proceeds to throw up repeatedly next to the car. His mother stands beside him and tells him that really, she expects better of him. When he can draw breath he screams back that his younger brother is to blame, for the gum or the vomiting or possibly both. There is chewing gum everywhere. Once back in the car the youngest one yells continuously at the top of his voice for no particular reason I can discern and doesn't stop until we reach Tavertet. I am beginning to have reservations about this trip.
We arrive at Betta's charming stone cottage, which is built right on the edge of a sheer, thousand foot high rock face. In the approaching dusk, we can see that the village stretches out in a wide semicircle around and below us, hugging the edge of the cliff and the hillside, and we exclaim in appreciation at the beauty of it all. We go inside to unpack and prepare dinner. There is a large black spider inside our designated bedroom which resists all attempts to remove it: it runs around playfully and tries to hide in our luggage. When we finally make it upstairs, the kids scream, fight, cry, pinch, punch and throw each other around for the next two hours without once letting up or stopping to draw breath. I have been inside nightclubs that are quieter.
Dinner is finally on the table. The kids pile their plates with food faster than the rest of us can. Ian and I are dismayed because we are starving and haven't eaten since morning: in the general frenzy we have only managed to reserve two tiny slices of tortilla and two pieces of bread. The youngest boy licks and sniffs as much of the food present on the table as possible without being seen by his mother, then pours olive oil on the tablecloth and throws his salad at us all. Ian eats any salad that is thrown his way. Betta evidently disapproves of Ian's behaviour but personally I am envious and wish I could bring myself to do the same.
The kids are finally sent to bed. We adults are exhausted and consume three bottles of wine before going to bed at 3am.
The kids are up and full of energy, while we awake with filthy hangovers. Breakfast is horrible: the youngest child decides to throw a tantrum and whines and screams without stopping for forty-five minutes until put in his room. Peace reigns for five minutes until he emerges to terrorise us again. For some reason his mother refuses to let him out of her sight: I privately hope she will send them both off to play near the edge of the cliff, but she doesn't.
Ian is bullied relentlessly to play soccer with them down on the village green. He finally gives in and Betta and I enjoy an hour of peace and quiet before they return and it is time to prepare lunch.
We all make a trip to the only shop in the village to buy food for dinner. The youngest wants his mother to purchase a giant wheel of cheese, and when she refuses, throws a fit. As we walk home, he pelts her repeatedly with dirt and clods of grass, then finally whacks her with a tree branch. She tells him that he will not eat crepes with us that afternoon as punishment, but he continues to hit her until we get home.
The crepes are being made, and true to her word, Betta refuses to make one for the truant. He has been crying and whining all afternoon, provoked by his older brother who waits until his mother is busy, then jabs him repeatedly in the ribs. The first crepe goes to Ian, which provokes a screaming fit. Betta makes the second, then turns back to the stove to pour the third into the pan. When her back is turned the youngest child handles the second crepe all over, tears off a corner and stuffs it into his mouth, and then sniffs what's left. I see the whole thing: the child knows I have seen it. Betta turns back to the crepe to fill it with berries, and guess what? It's for me! I have the choice of telling her what her revolting child has done or eating the fucking thing. I decide to eat it for the sake of peace and quiet, but a tantrum follows anyway: the kid screams and screams at the top of his lungs and is finally dragged on his back by one arm into his room, where he proceeds to smash things for the next hour and a half.
The youngest son is confined to his room as punishment. The rest of us go for a walk on the mountain and pick wild thyme, lavender, liquorice and field mushrooms. Ian insists that they are fine to eat, but as a biologist I know that you should never pick your own mushrooms unless you are an expert. We fill our pockets despite my reservations while the older boy climbs a scree slope and then can't get down. We leave him up there for a full hour, foraging peacefully over the mountainside, searching for mushrooms and fossils until he grows tired and his cries for help are too faint to be heard.
After we return to the house I furtively sneak off to our bedroom for a few moments of rest. There is a giant spider on the wall, brother to the one evicted yesterday. This is no ordinary spider: it's a racing model, black and big as my hand, with a streamlined, low-slung chassis and a set of legs any Olympic athlete would die for. I call for help and Ian and Betta come running. As she tries to capture it I break and scream "kill it, kill it" over and over at the top of my voice, which she finally does. I am exhausted and wonder how much more of this peace and quiet I can take.
As usual, we are awoken by the sounds of the kids trying to kill each other upstairs. I lie in bed for a while, then decide to get up and face the day. There is a giant black spider on the wall. Ian is forced to rise naked from bed to deal with it, wisely choosing to kill it quickly and get it over with. This time I insist that the body is left on the floor as a warning to its brethren who might venture too near.
As Ian and Betta did not die overnight from mushroom poisoning, I am all for going and getting some more. We set off in the car without the kids and on the side of a hill find a beautiful country manor undergoing restoration. As I make friends with the guard dogs Ian and Betta pilfer beautiful rough cut paving stones and fill the back of the station wagon with them. We carry on our way and pick mushrooms for the rest of the morning in perfect peace and quiet.
We lunch on the terrace on pasta and red wine. The kids are suspiciously quiet but refuse to eat much. All hell breaks loose as we discover the reason why: when left on their own in the morning they ransacked their mother's purse and went on a buying spree at the shop in the village. They have eaten their weight in chips and lollies and there is hell to pay. The youngest throws another tantrum which eclipses all of the others that have come before, but we are used to them now and sit serenely sipping our wine while their mother runs back and forth like a madwoman, alternatively smacking them with a wooden spoon and dragging them by arms and legs to solitary confinement in their room. Ian and I spend a pleasurable 15 minutes speculating aloud how best to cook the five kilos of field mushrooms we have picked for dinner that night.
We go for a long drive, and make the kids accompany us on their bicycles. It's fine while its all downhill, but the return journey is uphill and even the car has difficulty making it. The kids cry and beg to be let into the car, but we refuse and tell them the bikes won't fit. Some hikers who pass us on the road and hear their piteous cries for help look at us wonderingly as though we are monsters, but we know what we're doing. We are singing as we return home.
We have decided on mushroom risotto. Betta needs parsley, and I volunteer to climb over the neighbour's stone wall and pick it. The torch goes out while I am trying to find some, and the eldest boy offers to go back to the house to find a light. After ten minutes I decide he has been gone far too long and grope my way back to the house: he has brought down a burning log from the fireplace upstairs and left it next to the woodpile in the yard while he goes to get some newspaper. The woodpile is on fire when I reach it. As I run into the house with an empty wine bottle to fill with water and douse the flames, I run smack bang into him as he returns with newspaper to make a bigger fire so I can see properly to find the parsley. Then he suggests we put the newspaper IN the wine bottle and set it alight to make a torch. I ask him if he knows what a Molotov Cocktail is but he says no. I extinguish the burning log and the woodpile, then stamp on the embers for a while and pour water over the lot to make sure it doesn't go up again. I decide not to tell Betta what has almost happened, and return upstairs with a small amount of parsley and a handful of grass and dirt. Betta obviously thinks I am an idiot.
The mushroom risotto is delicious. Even without the parsley.
We are returning to Barcelona and Ian and I are delirious with happiness. Betta thinks it is because of the all the fresh air and peace and quiet. On the trip home, the youngest kid insists on sitting in the front all the way back to Barcelona. I spend the entire trip kicking the back of his seat.
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