People I’ve Known: The Abuela
A second story of the extraordinary ordinariness of everyday acquaintances.
She was remarkable — even more so for a grandmother.
She lived in a house on the edges of a quiet Asturian village, in the rural heart of northern Spain. Fringed by snow-capped hills, the village — scarcely more than a small assembly of houses and shops — flanked two sides of a narrow river. It had a school. It even had a prehistory museum, filled with neanderthal mannequins and iron-age spearheads.
Quite out of place in this modest community, Abuela's house was grand and stately, like the New World merchants’ houses that fill port-towns all along Spain’s northern coast, or like a foreign embassy, with three flag-poles rising tree-like behind its main gate — the deep blue of the EU flag, the sky-blue and gold of Asturias and, finally, the red-and-yellow of Spain.
Abuela is Spanish for “grandma”, which she was, literally-speaking. In fact, she was one of the grandmas of the Spanish friend who had invited several of us to stay with her family for a couple of weeks.
But Abuela was also a proud matriarch. She kept her family close; her three sons lived close-by with their own families, and would frequently come around for dinner at their mother’s house, sitting timidly and obediently at the dining table as if scared that they might be chastised like little children.
Abuela was fiercely independent. She would roam the village in a large, black 4x4. Everywhere we went, she would be there, talking, organising, taking charge. On one occasion, we saw her leave the police station. “She’s friends with the commissioner,” remarked our friend, “he gives her lifts when she doesn’t fancy driving.”
She must be part of the village mafia, we joked in response. Our friend just chuckled nervously. We evidently weren’t too far from the truth.
Abuela spoke no English, and even her Spanish was thick with a heavy regional accent that made communication almost impossible. Asturias, like the Basque Country and Catalonia to the east, retains a strong regional pride, a cultural resistance given substance in Abuela’s accent and pronunciation. With our friend as the able translator, however, this lack of understanding was rarely problematic.
Now, like almost every grandmother, Abuela was a phenomenal cook, having honed her skills across generations, and possessing an innate, arcane knowledge of Asturian culinary heritage. She approached every meal with the assumption that she was required to cater for a horde of starving soldiers, and even then tended to over-compensate.
Breakfast was always a banquet — charcuterie and fruit spread across every part of the table and, as a centre-piece, a traditional Spanish potato tortilla or two. Lunch and dinner proceeded in much the same fashion.
On one particular night, Abuela announced that she would be preparing a traditional Asturian meal. We were served fabada, a white bean and sausage stew. It was delicious; so good, in fact, that we all had second portions. Feeling full and praying that she hadn’t prepared a dessert, we turned to see that Abuela had brought in another course. Fabada had only been the starter; had we not received the memo?
Summoning all our strength, we made it through a meat course and discovered, with horror, that Abuela was only now busy preparing dessert. She was making arroz con leche, rice with milk, almost like rice pudding but laced with anise-flavoured liqueur — an Asturian delicacy.
It was delicious. Or, at least, it should have been, had we any space left to enjoy it.
We stayed with Abuela for ten days — long enough to begin to lose ourselves in the magic of her company and the beauty of the world that surrounded it without ever truly settling.
She called herself our surrogate grandmother and shared with us her memories, photographs, and souvenirs: pictures of her husband, her children, her life. She had lived her time magnificently.
Meeting Abuela for the first and only time was three years ago now. Her granddaughter, our friend, flew the nest for Barcelona, which shines considerably brighter than this forgotten corner of Spain.
I miss that sleepy town, the smell of Abuela’s cooking, and the rich natural and cultural tapestry of rural Asturias. The snow-capped Picos de Europa mountain range, and the swell of the Atlantic as it thrashes against the cliff-lined coast.
And the famed sidra — cider — made from the region’s apples for thousands of years and now shrouded in ritual.
Abuela was a symbol of a simpler, quieter world, cut off from the whirlwind of modern life. I can only hope that the same isolation has led it to resist the pandemic, too.
If you enjoyed this story, feel free to take a look at another of mine, written in a similar vein: The Porter.