Driving Over Lemons

By Chris Stewart

“Feel free to use our shower whenever you want,” he had offered. “There’s a dead goat in it at the moment. Just try not to get soap on the goat, will you?’’ Now this is the sort of bizarre, neighbourly banter that’s commonplace in Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons. Pitched as the story of ‘an optimist in Andalucia’, the book talks about a dream — one that rain-soaked Brits routinely chase — to move to a gorgeous country cottage, somewhere in lovely, warm Spain. And so it is with Stewart; Andalucia — dry, dusty, yet staggeringly beautiful — impresses him with its raw grandeur, snow-clad sierras and swift, sweeping rivers that he recklessly buys a practically inaccessible, primitive peasant house high in the mountains! And from then onwards — with one ‘deep, deep sigh’ of contentment – a clearly love-struck Stewart gushes (irritatingly, incessantly - what a place to come and live, what mountains, what lemons!) about his new ‘Eden’. Thank-goodness, his paradise is peopled with gloriously colourful characters — eccentric foreigners and crazy locals, whose idea of a going-away present is a brick wrapped in a plastic bag ‘for reasons of hygiene’…

It works (and almost doesn’t) because

It is an honest — though not always gripping — celebration of life in this remote corner of Andalucia. Stewart is clearly all for this deliciously laidback lifestyle — where cutting a tree-down is a companionable, day long event, and an excuse to picnic; killing pigs is, again, an all-day communal affair, and involves more picnicking; food, wine, sheep, scorpions, the fierce sun, the debilitating rainfall — all the elements are effectively employed to maintain the romantic vision of a rustic, Spanish village. But, somewhere along the way, his mildly patronising tone (towards the local ‘bumbling’ peasants) and the self-indulgent prose (annoyingly mundane pastoral scenes strung out into several chapters) makes you wonder if the purists were, after all, right – is this writing a travel version of ‘chick-lit’? For it’s a warm, fuzzy, feel-good tale, yes, a wonderful escape into the hills of Andalucia, definitely — but in reality, it’s just a vicariously pleasurable, indulgent read about another man’s journey to find the potatoes and aubergines growing among the grass and flowers of Spain…

And this one stays with you

‘I watched as Pedro dazzled me with his artistry in the preparation of his staple fare, papas a lo pobre — ‘poor man’s potatoes’. First he put a deep frying-pan, hideously greasy and blackened, onto a tripod over the flames and into it poured what I judged to be two coffee-cupfuls of olive oil. Then with his pocket knife he hacked up a couple of onions, without being too delicate in the matter of peeling them. As they fizzled gladly in the oil, he pulled to pieces a whole head of garlic and tossed the lot into the pan.’

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Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012