“To come here on a bright, sunlit day, or glimpse it when the clouds suddenly roll away, is to gaze with awe on dramatic landscapes conjured up by sea, rock, wind and rain." (Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.)
Part II: On Boundaries and Bonds, the Sea’s the Limit
There are things, I find, that Galicians guard jealously as their own, and their own only. The Galician language is arguably one of them. I remember my first go at saying a complete sentence in galego; it was silly but earnest: “Escoito Radio Galega Musica.” And I smiled, waiting for my sugar cube. “That’s Portuguese, not galego!” (I’d mispronounced the final “o” in “escoito.”) As I persisted, in time I got a good range of responses, from glassy looks to suggestions that my linguistic leanings were potentially exotic, and, of course, light snacks of retranca (“Eso sí que es bueno!...”). In any case, they shall not praise. Rather, recoil: “Why would you want to speak Galician??”
That again may have a historical explanation: in times past, faced with the incoming march of Castilian, Galician was forced to withdraw from the public space. It became the language of home. It was safe to speak in one’s inner circle: family and close friends. As such, an outsider’s use of highly idiosyncratic words like riquiño or morriña is, in a way, trespassing, and consequently calls for firm reaction. For example, I once had a lovely argument with a couple of Galician women, when I remarked that morriña has pretty much the same meaning as English “homesickness” and Portuguese saudade. They gave in on the translation front, but still made it crystal clear - with that scarily non-negotiable spirit which surges up in as galegas at times when you’d better shoot off, and silently!... - that morriña is a Galician feeling. Only. If you’re not Galician, help yourself, say the word. But you most definitely can’t experience or understand that feeling it expresses.
Not understanding Galicians is actually a bit of a pastime on both sides of the Cordillera Cantábrica. On the one hand, “meeting a Galician on a staircase, other Spaniards like to say, it is impossible to know whether they are going up or down,” as Tremlett puts it. On the other, Galicians themselves will readily confess, whenever not asked directly, that their prime feature is being closed. Full stop. I often sense a quirky sense of pride in that statement, so let me do the figures: if it’s common knowledge that somebody who’s closed is hard to understand, and if somebody deliberately closed shares in that piece of knowledge, does it not follow that Galicians would rather not be understood? That they may actually enjoy making it hard for outsiders to figure them out? (Souls naturally inclined to take things personally are kindly asked at this point not to read the lyrics of the Galician anthem. Ever. If they really need to, they should at least skip lines 21-24. That’s where the hermeneutics gets a bit muddy.)
Nevertheless, outsiders will be provided with a few clues as to how Galicians construe themselves. First, there’s Breogán, the Celtic founding father of the nation. Galicia’s claim to Celtic origins has been disputed time and over again, yet one cannot ignore the fact that, if it’s been around for so long, then it must be for a good reason. Obviously, bagpipes and certain design patterns are traditional Celtic stuff that Galicia does share with Ireland and Scotland. Secondly, there’s a rather pervasive sense around Galicia that it makes up a distinctive northern identity of Spain alongside Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country, with which it shares the same “gene pool,” according to Tremlett. Northern Spaniards are reportedly hardworking, more productive, reliable, as well as resilient under Atlantic weather conditions and the follies of history. (Another sense of joint Galician-Portuguese identity used to linger on here, but that’s not cool anymore because of the International Monetary Fund and Mrs Angela Merkel.)
But let me change my tune. In August 2010 I’d been a resident of A Coruña for a year and still had no clue about that “Galician soul” which Tremlett says Galicians are so determined to keep hiding. It was the Fiestas de María Pita and I joined in the celebrations going to a concert in Parque de Santa Margarita. Cristina Pato and Rosa Cedrón were going to put out a new album, “Soas” (“Alone”), and in the gig they mixed some new pieces with old ones. Their music, a fine fusion of Galician folk and universal classical, was flowing from the modest stage out into one of those rare balmy nights that Galician summers let slip. It was pleasant. Very.
At one point, they started singing a song that, from bar one, sent ripples of something around the small amphitheatre. It was “Quen puidera namorala,” composed by Luis Emilio Batallán, based on a poem by Álvaro Cunqueiro. Rosa beckoned to the audience to join in. They did so, very gently. Murmuring along. In tentative steps, the music was gathering mass from their voices. Spiralling off the incense of that something - was it intimacy? - with the kind of tender, luxurious slowness that a keyholder of Time might afford. An old, an ancient dream was unfolding. I thought to myself: “This is the Galician soul!” It came from way beyond retranca, Breogán, and all that factual information. This was something else. It was millennial, whole, basic. And serious; replete with atoms of mesmerising seriousness. It was so beautiful, I could not move.
Awe and lyricism - these are, I believe, the reservoirs unique to Galicia in the whole of Spain. Galicians seem to have preserved them since time immemorial, and I can see why: because of the Ocean. El Mar. When Galicians pronounce these two words, there’s deep love, and deeper respect, in them. El Mar up here is powerful. On clear sunny days, as it stretches out towards America, its unmistakable deep blue is a blinding magnet, as frightening as it is seductive. Galicians have experienced the full range of its potency, from the most destructive, most recently in January, to the most alleviating. El Mar feeds them, inspires them, challenges them, and teaches them humility and resistance.
Galicians love gazing at El Mar. Some do so for hours, abstracted and absorbed in it. Seeing them, “Costa da Morte” sounds out of tune. What’s more like it is Costa da Morriña.