Remembering La Alberca

When my parents came to visit in Madrid last year, they brought with them some of my old photos, a box of a few hundred slides I’d set aside years ago. It was a random sampling of the uncounted thousands of Kodachromes and Fujichromes I have sitting in the not-so-archival environment of my parent’s damp basement in Toronto.

There are a lot of things I prefer about digital photography over film, but film has digital beat when it comes to looking at old photographs. You get to hold the actual original thing, for starters, and you can see it without having to plug anything in. Slides can’t be perfectly copied in a keystroke, they’re one of a kind. And for that same reason, you see them only once in a while. They get put into deep storage and get forgotten about until they surface sometime later, like artefacts from the past.

There was one slide in particular that caught me eye. I took it out of the plastic sleeve and held it up to the window. My uncle Miguel had died the year before, but in the image, taken some twenty-five years ago, he looked not much older than I am now. We were in a village called La Alberca with my aunt and an old woman from the village.

Miguel was born in northern Spain, but moved to Germany when he was a young man to look for work. He lived the rest of his life there, but whenever he could, often more than once or twice a year, he and my aunt Ilse spent their vacations in Spain. Every time I had the chance, I went with them.

I think my tio Miguel liked to travel in Spain to relive his youth, so the places that appealed to him the most were the places that had changed the least. Twenty-five years ago, Spain was quite different than it is today, but even back then La Alberca seemed like a village from a much earlier era.

Surrounded by mountain ranges and on the road to nowhere, La Alberca was like the Spain of my uncle’s stories, when he would talk about how everything used to be. Old men wore berets and black cardigans, women wore traditional dresses. Donkey’s clopped down the cobbled Calle Mayor carrying hay, and the ground floors of many of the ancient half-timbered houses were used as stables for pigs and sheep and goats.

I met the old woman when Miguel and Ilse went for a walk in the countryside. She saw me taking pictures and struck up a conversation with me. She was very friendly and talkative and quickly appointed herself as my personal guide, leading me on a tour of the narrow stone streets with unconcealed pride.

We eventually came across my aunt and uncle, who had returned with a bag full of chanterelles they’d picked in the woods. We all chatted amiably. Before we said goodbye, I steadied my camera on a stone bench, set the self-timer, and took a picture of the four of us. I promised to send her a print, but I never did.

What would La Alberca be like now? Going back to some place you visited a long time ago is always a risk because you want everything to be the same. That’s part of the attraction—you don’t just want to go back somewhere, you want to go back in time. But I decided to go anyway. Just as my uncle had wanted to revisit his youth, I wanted to revisit mine.

I arrived in a La Alberca on a busy Saturday in October. A bit later in the day than I planned, but the road to the village, though much improved, still had enough curves to make the kilometres seem longer than they were. It was lunchtime, so I found an outdoor table in the Plaza Mayor and sat down to eat.

I hadn’t yet had a chance to walk around, but even then I was trying to piece together the memories of the streets with the actual ones. I had brought the photos of my earlier trip with me so that I could take pictures in the same spots so many years later. I was looking at the images when the waitress came over, and feeling exuberant about the whole thing, I showed them to her.

“Not much has changed!” she said happily, as though she’d worried it had. And it was true. There were more tourists, but the town itself was just as it was. As she flipped through the images, she saw the one of me, my aunt and uncle, and the old lady.

“That’s Cruz!” she said, surprised. “She lives around the corner in front of the church!”

Following the waitress’s directions, I knocked on Cruz’s door, but there was no answer. A woman selling vegetables nearby yelled over, “She’s not home. Check the butcher’s shop on the main street, she visits a friend there in the afternoon.”

She wasn’t at the butcher’s shop either. But I wasn’t ready to give up. I’m not sure why I wanted to say hello to her and to show her the pictures. I just did.

I left and went for a coffee. I asked the woman behind the bar if she knew Cruz, showing her the photo, and she said,“Of course. If she’s not there now, she’ll be at 12:00 mass tomorrow, for sure.” The way she said ‘for sure’ left no room for doubt in the matter. And I thought, great. I’ll catch her before mass tomorrow, for sure.

I walked around the village, taking photos. An old man rode past on a donkey, his wife sitting sidesaddle behind him, wearing a scarf tied around her head. Near the Plaza Mayor, a pig ambled by, head down, snorting and gobbling up acorns as if in a race against time. It didn’t feel like much had changed.

Later that evening, I stopped at a bar to have a glass of wine. The place was empty except for the owner and one patron. I looked at pictures of my uncle and aunt while the two of them passionately debated the best time to plant green beans. After a while, three guys burst in, celebrating Saturday night with a few drinks and a guitar. They sang songs and teetered on their bar stools and soon pulled me into their party. I had my camera around my neck, as usual, and after talking with them for a bit, one of them pointed at me with sudden recognition and said, “You’re the photographer looking for Cruz!”

The next day, shortly before 12:00 noon, I went one last time to knock on Cruz’s front door. I held the knocker firmly in my fingers and gave it three good cracks against the iron-studded wood. Nothing. I waited and gave it three more. A woman walking by said, “She lives on the third floor, she won’t hear the door. Call out to her.”

In the plaza in front of the church, as people went about their Sunday morning business, I cupped my hands to my mouth and belted out her name. “CRUUUZZZ!!”

I waited a few moments, then yelled again, then waited again. I was about to leave when I heard the sound of a heavy iron latch and then there she was. Her short white hair was combed neatly to the side. She was dressed mostly in black, with a black apron over her skirt.

I explained why I had come, and Cruz was delighted that I’d thought to stop by. She moved slowly, but she looked at me brightly. I showed her the picture and she said, “Oh yes! There I am!” She was 94, she told me. We talked politely but warmly and when she asked where I lived now, she said her nephew has a restaurant only a five-minute walk away. I said I’d be sure to stop by sometime.

I never asked her directly because I didn’t have to; she didn’t remember me or my aunt and uncle. Maybe she would have if I’d sent the photo as I’d promised many years ago. I showed her the rest of the images. One of them was of her mother, who was then about the same age as Cruz.

She tilted her head and smiled. We were strangers, connected only by some old photos, but for a few wordless moments we remembered our loved ones together, and then we said goodbye.