“This mountain range dips south along Galicia’s border with neighbouring Asturias and León. It forms a formidable natural barrier that sets Galicia, and the Galicians, apart from … the rest of Spain.” (Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.)
Part I: The Mysteries of Saint Depende and the Rest of Us Mortals
On any idle afternoon, it’s well worth grabbing a map of the Iberian Peninsula, holding it like a wheel and turning left. 12 o’clock, Basque Costa Verde. 12.10, Costa Brava. Quarter past(ish), Costa Daurada and Costa del Azahar. Keep on turning: Costa Blanca, Costa Cálida, Costa del Sol, Costa de la Luz, Costa Prata. And Costa da Morte. After gold, warmth, sun, light and even orange blossom, where do you go with that name?
You go to Galicia. The strangely Antipodean-looking eucalyptus grove near Alvedro airport was giving off a ghostly mist. The air was slightly blue and dilemmatic. The world could have begun again. It didn’t, though. I breathed in, breathed out and got on the bus. It took me to the city centre in 20 minutes. Plenty of time for goddess Galician Weather to discharge a shower, halt, flash a bunch of sun rays on their commercial break (a teaser ad for one of the other Coasts, no doubt), and then properly start pouring. Down. Heavily.
As I was wading with my suitcase, laptop, umbrella and Lonely Planet guide open at “A Coruña – Orientation” along the wrong street and in the wrong direction, snippets of Tremlett’s outlook on Galicia came to my mind. “Spain’s misty and mysterious north-west corner.” Realm of meigas (witches), holy land to pilgrims, cocaine traffickers’ gateway to Europe, country of troubadours once upon a time, Franco’s homeland, and the cradle of Zara. Where the weather is “unpredictable and unforgiving,” and storms can buffet you “with near-horizontal rain and wind.”
That prepares you for just about anything. Even so, my first conversation with a local gentleman came as a bit of a surprise. By the time I had the pleasure of engaging in it, I was severely drenched, so it was a very sore figure indeed that asked the kind taxi driver how she could get to Calle Alameda. He didn’t say, “Take the third turning on the left.” Or “See that bank on the corner? That’s where your street is.” Instead, he said: “See this street here on the left?” I nodded. “This is not the one you’re looking for.” “Oh!” I let out. “See the second one over there?” “Yes?...” I followed expectantly. “Well, that’s not it, either.” “I see,” I tuned in. “See the third one, a little bit further up?” “I do,” I confirmed with élan. “That is Calle Alameda, effectively.”
When I left him I was the happy bearer of a broad, broad smile: I had experienced the Galician retranca first hand! What is retranca? I’d say it ought to be UNESCO heritage, but Giles Tremlett argues it’s just “one of the great Galician characteristics” and locates it anywhere between “a devious refusal to let others know what you are doing or thinking,” irony (i.e. taking the mickey out of people, please see above), and “a good-humoured attempt to confuse those who try to read the Galician soul.” Other more muted voices imply, particularly on foggy days, that retranca is also a way of saying what you’re not saying, and vice versa: not really saying what you’re actually saying. Quite. Conspiratorial coded messages? A remainder of the freedom of speech in Francoist times? After all, Galicia did have a little crush on spies, once.
Be that as it may, the typical interface of retranca is “Depende” (“It depends”). It’s the answer you’re bound to get whenever you ask direct questions. This leads to conversational gems which a dead Dadaist would be dying to be able to make up. For example: “Have you finished the exercise?” “Depende.” “Are you tired?” “Depende.” “What time is it?” “Depende.” Only one word can describe it sublimely enough: ubiquitous. However, a brilliant challenger might topple it soon in the retranca charts. It’s “más o menos” (more or less), starring outstandingly in this other real-life little chat: “How are you?” “Más o menos.” And one should never forget the classics: “Is it true that a Galician always answers a question by asking one?” “Who told you that?”
Although possibly frustrating on occasion, Galician retranca is Spain’s best contender for attaining the unattainable: British humour. Ricky Gervais brings up its undertones in a (more or less) recent article. “We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly take the piss out of people we like or dislike. And ourselves. This is very important… [It] can sometimes be perceived as nasty if the recipients aren’t used to it. It isn’t. It’s play fighting. It’s almost a sign of affection if we like you, and ego bursting if we don’t. You just have to know which one it is.”
Rub off the Gervaisian extra bit of acid, and you get retranca, I reckon. It’s a game of mirrors, after all; a double-edged social tool; and a mutual testing ground. Look at this exchange between a supermarket cashier and a customer: “Buenos días!” “Buenos días - por decir algo...” “Algo hay que decir.” (“Good morning!” “Good morning - just to say something…” “One’s got to say something.”) Do they or don’t they like each other? Are they pulling each other’s legs? Their own? We don’t know. How could we? We’re not Galicians.
(To be continued)