In 1988 author Chris Stewart travelled to an area south of Granada, Spain and — without consulting his wife — bought a farm called El Valero. She was surprisingly calm about his actions considering the farm had no electrical service, running water or access to a paved road. Oh, and the previous owner still hung around. Sometimes he made dinner.
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Thus begins the adventures of Stewart (a founding member of Genesis and part time travel writer) and his wife, Ana, as they navigate the Spanish bureaucracy, raise sheep, learn about the olive trade and eventually start a family. Driving Over Lemons was published as both a memoir and an attempt to raise funds to make improvements on El Valero. It’s told in the first person by a man with a dry wit and an understated way of telling a story. It makes for an entertaining read.
I originally bought this book in 2012 shortly before Rick and I began to seriously entertain the idea of retiring to Spain. Wouldn’t it be romantic, I thought, to buy a little farm and raise chickens and goats and have a little garden? We found out, as did the Stewarts, that life is very different outside of the larger cities and towns. The Spanish are a warm and friendly people but not without their prejudices towards outsiders. Despite this, Stewart makes friends with another shepherd named Domingo and impresses the other sheep farmers with his sheep shearing skills.
The stories Stewart tells about his interactions with his neighbors are funny and provide great insight into life in rural Spain. Sometimes the couple is baffled by their actions but despite the frustrations the Stewarts grew to love farm life, figured out how to bring running water and electrical service to the house and start a family.
The second book, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, continues the story of El Valero and the Stewart family but also a couple stories of Stewart’s life before meeting and getting married to Ana. As a young man he traveled to Spain and learned to play flamenco guitar. At some point he joined a circus and worked on a boat in Greece. For a number of years after he and Ana moved to El Valero he travelled to Sweden to supplement the farm’s income by shearing sheep. Stewart’s storytelling reveals a man whose seemingly restless youth prepares him for a life in which he has to deal with whatever comes his way with only his intellect and his hands, much like early pioneers in the US. The anecdotes are filled with the same good humor we saw in the first volume. In between the forays into the past we find Stewart’s friendship with Domingo is still going strong and Chloe is now in school and totally adapted to Spanish society.
The parrot mentioned in the title just shows up at El Valero one day and immediately takes to Ana. He doesn’t care for Stewart at all and somehow manages to turn the household on its ear before they all learn how to get along together.
The final book of the Lemons trilogy, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society, continues the story of El Valero. Thanks to the success of the previous two books the family has been able to make many more improvements to the farm and Chris Stewart is a bit of a local celebrity. The stories are just as funny but in this volume Stewart reveals some of the sadder parts of Spanish society; the treatment of the workers in the greenhouses of the South and the rampant corruption of the politicos and real estate developers that helped to collapse the economy.
As in the other books, Stewart bases his stories on everyday life in Southern Spain while remaining optimistic and never losing his self deprecating sense of humor.
These three books provide a great insight into rural Spain that most tourists will never get a glimpse of even as though they enjoy the products of the campo in the tapas bars of Madrid and Barcelona. So pour yourself a glass of red wine and nibble on a bowl of marcona almonds while immersing yourself in these delightful memoirs.