The Wall

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When a wall is so much more than a wall.

The weather was promising – cloudy and slightly cool. I put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, slipped on my Laura Ashley gardening gloves, and got out the broom. It was time for The Wall.

Walls in Galicia aren’t just pretty stones fitted masterfully together and draped with wildflowers and vines – they are symbols of identity. More specifically, they are symbols of a person’s good character, community pride, and work ethic. And if your wall is dripping with wildflowers and vines – you have none of those things.

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Some people go for scallop shells to avoid The Wall thing.

Wall greenery is not picturesque in this neighbourhood, it is an affront. It is something to be “cleaned.” Why it took a Canadian woman so long to learn this fact is just another one of life’s great mysteries.

But, when you know, it’s even worse. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

While I’m no stranger to hard work – I was a tree planter in the wilds of British Columbia, Canada for six seasons (and anyone who has ever planted before knows you are practically invincible after such gruelling work)  – “cleaning” a Galician wall in public is a daunting task.

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I don’t mind hard work, but check out this beach where we are now allowed to swim.

This wasn’t an interior wall, you see, it was the public wall, the one facing the town, the one everyone passed on their walk up la cuesta, the hill. It was nearly 15-feet tall in some places, and, before yesterday, chock full of weeds. In addition, piles of dead leaves from my kumquat tree mingled with patches of grass and bits of garbage at its base.

I knew the moment I took on The Wall, they’d be watching.

Sometimes it’s easier to just bite the bullet and confront your fears. The coronavirus lockdown provided the perfect excuse to avoid this. Unfortunately, Galicia was now in Phase 2, and going outside your front gate to weed your wall had been permitted for more than a month.

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Travel within the province of Pontevedra is also allowed, where places like natural food stores that sell hazelnuts in baskets exist.

Within minutes, straw-hat neighbour (see Lockdown #10) stuck his head up over his front gate. “You are cleaning the wall!” he exclaimed. After about ten minutes he emerged with a mysterious plastic bag to deliver to the neighbour below. “Be careful of the ticks,” he said in passing. “It’s the season.”

Inwardly, I scoffed – I was Canadian, accustomed to things like horseflies that literally take chunks out of your flesh.

No sooner had I thought this then I looked down at my bare legs and saw several tiny black creatures scurrying for a place to call home. I walked back up the hill and into the house, furiously removing my clothing. But I would not be defeated, re-emerging with long pants and a long shirt. Of course, now that I was fully clothed, the sun came out.

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The more than 400-year old holiness of stone (weeds allowed).

Straw-hat neighbour re-emerged to point at Stanley the stray cat who was assisting me by jumping on the weeds as I pulled.

“It’s good you have a cat here,” he said. “I just saw a rat run into the grass.”

The sun beat down harder and harder, and I recalled my tree-planting days – the heat, the mosquitoes buzzing on all sides. I thought of my ex-husband and his young new girlfriend enjoying a warm June day in Toronto, yanking harder and harder, ripping vines out from their roots.

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“Don’t work too hard, Angie,” says Molly.

“It’s too hot to work,” said the neighbour below as he emerged with a mysterious bucket to deliver to straw-hat neighbour. “It’s too hot to work,” said power-washer neighbour, walking down the hill. “It’s too hot to work,” said a third helper, this time a stranger.

A woman passed with impossibly shiny hair hanging down her back, trotting gingerly down the steps in heeled black sandals. She brushed away at the indignity of the dust-filled air with her manicured red fingernails as I swept piles of dead weeds and dirt into my dustpan, sweating profusely.

“It’s too hot to work,” said the neighbour from the big white house someone told me was a “narco house” (see Fariña, or “Cocaine Coast”) after he’d parked his car. This time, he elaborated.

Bueu blossoms

Oh, the freshness of spring.

“We work from eight to nine in the morning,” he said, “and after seven in the evening.” It’s fresco then, he said – fresh.

What wasn’t fresh was his breath – the scent of hard liquor mingled with the sun-baked grass. Despite the blazing sun, he was in the mood to chat. I attempted to stoop down and fill the dustpan – I was so close to finishing and being able to hide inside the house again – but then worried that would seem impolite.

Sometimes it sucks to be Canadian.

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Yes, we are too polite – but look at our pretty stamps!

“You did the hard part,” narco neighbour said, sweeping his hand across the now-clean bottom three-quarters of the wall. “The rest is easy.”

He pointed to the high bits I couldn’t possibly reach. “Easy,” he said again. And here I lost him, as I often do when things become too complicated for my poor Spanish. Instead, I did the nod-and-smile combo, a technique I’ve been mastering all over the world for years.

While doing so I noted things you observe when you focus on the person and not the words coming out of their mouth. The pale blue dress shirt, unbuttoned almost to his belly. The sweaty chest and brow. The thinning hair. The missing front teeth, and one of the few remaining ones, black with rot.

His eyes searched the heights of the wall, looking a little lost, until he spotted Stanley watching from above. “He looks like good cat,” he said. “His has kind eyes.”

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Our dear Stanley.