La sabiduría de mi portero
the wisdom of my porter
The barbed bushes had hands that plucked things from his pocket and tore his glasses from his face. It was always a battle to fight through them, it took hours and once he made it he still had to trek all the way up the steep, rocky goat track to the summit. Usually it was well after lunchtime when he arrived at the top, hot, hungry and bleeding from the damn thorns, las espinas de mierda.
It was worth the struggle. From the summit of his flat-topped mountain the entire province of Aragon stretched out before him, gleaming in the sun. The hardscrabble pueblo far below looked tiny, he could hardly make out the tiny stone row house where his family lived. If there were no clouds he could sometimes see as far as Peña Oroel, once he had even glimpsed the ancient castle that guarded the pass there. It was the sound of wings though, that dominated his senses.
The mountain straddled the migratory flyway between Scandinavia and Morocco and sometimes the sky would be so thick with birds in the autumn that you could hear their massed fluttering for miles, like a squadron of military helicopters flying in an endless line from horizon to horizon, right over his head.
He took a stone from the canvas bag tied to his belt and loaded his catapult. The trick was to strike so the bird fell near him and that meant shooting up but forward at a sharp angle. Once he waited too long and felled a beautiful big stork flying directly overhead but it tumbled over and over behind him, falling down the steep side of the mountain where he couldn’t possibly retrieve it. Since he was a little boy his dad had taken him up the mountain to go hunting, but now that he was older Julián liked to try his luck on his own. He always felt like the King of Aragon up there. He would be treated like a king too if he made it safely back home with dinner.
The family was poor, desperately poor. Under Franco there was scarcely any work at all for anyone living in an isolated little farming town in the Spanish countryside. ¡Dios mío! there wasn’t much work in the city, either. Times were tough everywhere. In Julián’s town, once you turned 13 life became very simple — you were expected to leave school and labor in the fields. That was it, you had no other option, no way out. But working in the barren fields for next to nothing and shooting birds with a catapult was no way for anyone to live, Julián realized that when he was still just a boy. He dreamed about a different kind of life.
To this day he can’t tell you where that impulse came from. Maybe it was the propaganda the regime broadcast over and over again about the miracle of Spain — one country constructed out of 17 nations, each with its own history and culture, even its own language, but united and strong for one reason and one reason only: The Generalissimo. Julián would tune in every day and listen to the same radio program over and over again, each province seemed to hold its own mysteries, its own beautiful soul and not even the accompanying nonsense about Franco could diminish his sense of wonder at the world of Spain outside the pueblo. Catalonia seemed especially magical, with its ocean and its mountains, its history and its spirit. One day, after he came home tired and torn from another long day of hunting, he announced to the family that he had decided to leave and go off to try his luck in Barcelona. He might as well have told them he was going to the moon. He was just 17 years old.
They were shocked. Nobody from the village had ever done anything like this before. Leave the pueblo for good? Go to Catalonia, out on the eastern edge of the country, more than 300 kilometers away? It was unthinkable. There must be something wrong with him.
The word soon spread. In the days before he left, his wild scheme was all the village talked about. Most thought he was just a foolish young dreamer with exalted ideas that would surely lead to trouble. As always, those most unhappy with their own lot were the most hostile to his plan. “Julián has forgotten who he is and where he comes from,” the old ladies would say when they gossiped about his plan in the market. “La perdiz por el pico se pierde.” The partridge that flies too high will get lost. The prospect of him failing made them all feel so much better.
“I remember what my papi used to say,” one lady told the others after mass one day. “Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda.” Even if the monkey wears a silk dress, it’s still a monkey. She bent over and pointed a crooked finger at her friends. “He’ll be back and with his tail between his legs, you’ll see.”
But he didn’t care what they said, and he didn’t want to stop for a second to ponder what made him different. For Julián it was a simple, obvious truth. He knew he had to make his escape, and he had to make it now, or he would find himself trapped forever along with everybody else. Like his father was. And his father before him.
His father’s reaction came as a big surprise to Julián. He was proud of his boy’s decision, for it meant he had raised someone who could see far further than he could. “Now, now,” he said to his wife as she sat weeping at the dinner table that night. “La madre, del águila no nace la paloma.” Mother, eagles do not breed doves. “It is good that he goes. He is young, he has ideas, he is brave, who knows what he might make of himself?”
Soon the time came. Early one Saturday morning the villagers gathered and looked on as Julián kissed his tearful parents goodbye outside the house. He argued briefly with his father, who had somehow managed to cobble together a few pesetas to give him for the trip. Finally he relented and put them carefully in his pocket. Then off he went, clutching a bag with nothing more than a clean shirt and a stale bocadillo in it, down the dusty road that led to the bottom of the mountain and the highway. Once he turned the corner he couldn’t help himself and started to run and leap from excitement. He hoped to hitch a ride on a truck. He would see the ocean for the first time, he would live in a big city for the first time, and he would, most definitely, find a job.
Anyone could see that Julián would be a willing, reliable worker. Although he was shrewd by nature and already toughened from the struggle of daily life in the pueblo, he had the appearance of a humble person, somebody who lacked imagination, somebody who would be respectful and appreciative no matter what, somebody who would work hard and not think too much or ask too much in return. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before he snared a great job in the city of his dreams. He couldn’t believe his luck. He became a portero in a prestigious apartment building in the Eixample, given by the Generalissimo himself to a loyal Catalan supporter after the civil war. A one month trial. ¨You’re from Aragon, that’s good. We don’t trust the Catalans,” said the lady whose husband now owned the building. “But not one fingerprint on the brass banisters,” she warned. “No dust on the floor. Spotless glass on the door. Most of all, no-one comes in and out unless you personally clear them. Understand?”
Julián didn’t care much for the Catalan’s politics and the irony of the woman’s prejudice didn’t escape him, but he wasn’t going to let either get in the way. His grandmother always used to say. “A veces una gallina ciega encuentra su grano.” Sometimes even a blind hen will find a piece of grain. He had always liked that saying. Even when he was a little boy he understood what it meant. It would take more than luck for his own plan to work. It would take a break like this, sure, but it would also take hard work and proving himself. He was ready. Now he had the chance of a permanent position, he had prospects. He wasn’t going to earn a fortune, but as a porter he would have a roof over his head and steady income. He could make a life, a life of his own. Maybe one day Nuria would leave the village and come and join him. Would she do that? For the first time ever Julián began to see a different life stretching out before him.
In the old days, the porter had to trudge all the way up the endless stairs to his little house on the roof when the work day ended at nine o’clock. The bigshots lived on the first two floors, not many stairs for them. Today porters still live on the roof, but in a delicious irony, they take the elevator to get there. Julián’s house up there is tiny, but he cannot imagine that anybody has a better view of the city.
His building stands across the street from Gaudi’s La Pedrera in the heart of the city, and from his kitchen window he can see everything Barcelona has to offer, from Tabidabo to Montjuïc, from Paseo de Gràcia all the way down to the shimmering ocean. Years ago, his wife planted climbing roses on the southern side of the little house and their scent is still the first thing he notices when he finally gets home at the end of his 15-hour day. Each night he stands still for a moment, closes his eyes and feels the evening breeze moving gently in from the Mediterranean. He is back on his mountain. It never loosens its grip on him. An invisible wave of recollection, pulsing like a beacon through the days and the nights all the way from Aragon, keeps calling him back home.
It’s easy to underestimate a humble porter. Early in the morning he puts on his heavy, bright-blue tunic, the uniform of every porter in Spain, and begins his day by sweeping the lobby floor and the sidewalk outside. Then he sorts the mail, polishes the brass fittings in the lobby, removes the garbage bags from the back door of each apartment and orders around the visiting electricians and carpenters. After lunch he comes back down from his eyrie at the top of the building in a suit and tie, dressed and ready to properly receive the residents coming home from work and any evening visitors who may be calling.
Residents often stride right past Julián on their way to and from their self-important appointments, barely acknowledging his presence. The ones who have moved from Madrid are the worst, they seem to have been born with their big fancy noses in the air. Their superiority is foolish. It is also dangerous. It blinds them to the fact that Julián has become a powerful authority in their lives. He is like an invisible puppeteer. You see, he knows everything there is to know about them.
He knows everything about them because at some point everybody in the building, even those who usually choose to ignore him, have a reason to stop by his little office off the lobby. It might be to pick up the mail. Or to ask him to let in a workman. Soon he has them revealing a little bit about themselves…and a whole lot about their neighbors. Always respectful and discreet, he never has to pry. All he has to do is ask an innocent question — and then lend a sympathetic ear.
If there’s one thing Julián quickly learned in his new role as a porter it is this: Words and feathers get carried away by the wind. “Palabras y plumas el viento las lleva.” He is an obliging co-conspirator. He simply waits for his charges to report in with news of their maladies, spouses, kids, neighbors, plans, hopes, fears and aggravations — and sure enough, they do. Julián presides at the center of a virtual network, while across it travels a rich daily soup of inside information and las cotilleos, spicy snippets of gossip. Soon he is no longer just a redneck from a country town, un rapaterrone de pueblo. Julián has become the fountainhead of information for all who live in his apartment building. That has made him indispensable. And a very wise man.
Dealing in top-secret intelligence is a tricky business and he’s especially proud of one little trick he developed along the way. In the summertime, he bribes his charges and visitors with a bowl of cherries fresh from the Jerte Valley.
They always stop to try one or two and that’s when he often hears some inside scoop he can store away in case it’s needed later. It’s also how he’s picked up a little English, a little French, some German, even a little Russian. The ignorant peasant boy who used to shoot birds out of the sky with a catapult for dinner now speaks five languages.
Over the years, not much changed for Julián. Oh, he became in a way an educated man and a respected fixture on the street on which his building stood, but his life continued on with every day taking pretty much the same shape. It was not hard to submit to the monotonous routine because he took pleasure from all that his new life taught him. The man who owned the building died not long after democracy came. His wife ran the building after that and that’s the only time Julián thought he might quit. More than once he told Nuria he was going to chuck it and go back to Aragon, for the old lady acted like he was her personal retainer, like he was obliged to cater to her every whim, however trivial, no matter what the time of day. She would open the back to her apartment and screech his name at the top of her voice, everyone in the building could hear her. But by now they had two little children in a good school down the street, and he knew he had to keep the job. So he came up with a plan.
He knew the old lady had no interest at all in a peasant from Aragon, a man far below her station in life. That was fine, thought Julián, it was safer for him to keep his distance from her. So he set to on the delicate task of persuading her to hire a companion. If he could get that done, there would be a buffer, an intermediary, between him and the old lady.
First he went to the lawyer, Señor Manolo. “It’s her safety I worry about,” he said. “If she injures herself and the building has to be sold, what then for us?” Then when her nephew came to visit, he intercepted him in the lobby. “Your aunt is very lonely,” he said. “She has few guests and nobody to take an evening walk with.” Then he waited.
One day soon after while he was fixing a faucet for her, she mentioned she was thinking of getting a live-in maid. “It’s none of my business,” said Julián, “but I think you would like the company. I will even help interview her if you like.” Sure enough, once Teresa arrived, he seldom had anything at all to do with the old lady anymore. They never got to know each other much at all, despite seeing each other every day for nearly 50 years. “All I ever say to the señora is buenos días,” he said. “And that’s all I need to say.”
One day recently he came to her with surprising news. She was pleased to see him at first, for it was unusual that he would ask to see her and after so long he had become a familiar fixture in her life, like the old wooden chairs on the patio, worn but comfortable. All that changed when he told her his news.
“Next week I turn 65,” he said. She was astonished, she had no earthly idea how old he was. “So I am taking my pension and retiring. I will stay until you find my replacement if you like.” “After all I have done for you, you come to me with this? How could you? Have you thought it through? Where will you live?” “Thank you for all you have done for me,” replied Julián. “Some years ago I bought a house in my hometown in Aragon. I will live out my days there.” It had taken him 50 long years, hoarding just centimos at first, then pesetas, and finally euros, but at last he won his prize, his very own place to live, back in his Aragon village.
He came close to buying a big house on the main plaza but in the end he purchased a smaller one at the top of town, near the church. It has three levels, and he put in an extra bathroom for when the kids come to stay. He stores wine in the cellar and Nuria has planted another beautiful climbing rose near the front door. The locals have asked him if he would consider becoming mayor one day soon. He told them he would think about it. Every Thursday night he gets together with a group of childhood friends in a bar in the center of town. They haven’t changed much at all, but everything else has. The river in the valley is often dry these days, but he never had much luck fishing there anyway. There are two inns in town now, and several fine restaurants, and a brand new road, built with a grant from the European parliament, that runs all the way down to the highway. To the amazement of the locals, tourists come from all over the world to stay. The travel brochures call the town “a classic whitewashed pueblo in the heart of Aragon.”
Sometimes he wanders down the hill and listens to the tourists talking. Then he picks the right moment and surprises them with a greeting in their own language. Soon he is guiding them up the mountain on the same track his father used to take him on years ago. The path to the summit is clear of thorns now, but it’s still rocky and steep. Even in migration season there are fewer birds, though on a good day in November dozens of storks can be seen overhead. Whenever he climbs to the summit he makes sure to tuck his old catapult in his pocket, just in case.
He never gets tired of the view from up there. He says it’s even better than looking out over La Pedrera. In the end Julián, the country boy who grew up to be a porter and a very wise man, could have lived anywhere in the world. But he chose to come home. Home to his very own mountain.
Pen and Ink illustrations courtesy Elizabeth Carpenter, Artworks Management.
Note from the author: The Spanish language is extraordinarily rich in proverbs. They are the heart and soul of the language and culture, passed on as accumulated wisdom through generations and used to enlighten even everyday conversation. Cervantes characterized them as short sentences based on long experience. Even ancient ones are still relevant today. After all, “refrán viejo nunca miente.” “An old proverb never lies.” Over the years, working in the quiet of the early afternoon, Julián assembled and edited a collection of 365 Spanish proverbs, one for every day of the year. That’s the source of the proverbs used in this story. They offer tantalizing glimpses into “la España profunda,” the mysterious, deep, secret, old Spain, the Spain you always sense when you walk a quiet country pueblo at siesta time, shuttered, sleeping, private, hidden. If you would like a copy of his unique collection, email me at email@example.com
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