The Passing Year


I look back on those happy years when I taught English in Palma, and I remember how quickly they went by. But there were certain milestones that we passed as the months came and went. They were perhaps not the most important things, but they gave a shape to the year, and we had a sense of progress as we went from one to the next.

Our year began in September and it finished at the end of June. This was the school year and that was what we lived by. July and August were summer, and in summer life changed. Every day was hot and sunny, and the nights were hot too. We walked more slowly, and we thought more slowly. But let’s begin at the beginning. I said we started in September but as time went on, September become hotter and hotter too, and my students became loath to return to classes until the temperatures had dropped a little.  The summer lethargy hung on. I would phone them in mid-September, and they would answer politely but firmly, “Ah yes. Thanks for getting in touch but I think I’ll leave it a little longer. It’s still quite hot, you know.”  At the end of June, we still said, “Goodbye. See you in September” but it was always October before the first class had been arranged.

So, we got down to business in October. Timetables were set and subscriptions were paid. And we began. With most students we had to go back a stage or two. The months of summer had been long and hot, and their English had been relegated to that part of the brain reserved for matters of much less importance.  This meant that in October we started with what we had done back in May or even April, and we carried on from there.

The first event of our year was on 20 October. the night before the ‘Fiesta de las Vírgenes. ‘The fiesta of the virgins’ This sounds quite dramatic and there is now, I believe, a movement to change the name but it simply referred to the evening when the young men went out into the street  and sang to their girlfriends who looked down from the balcony. Then the girls provided a glass of muscatel wine and ‘buñuelos’, which they had cooked that afternoon and had ready and waiting. A buñuelo is a sort of doughnut made from potato, eggs and sugar, and was given as a recompense for the visit and the song. Whether more was provided than a buñuelo, I do not know.

So, in the class before ‘las Virgenes’ the young men in our group would be asked about their plans and then on the first class afterwards everyone would discuss how things went and what their reception had been and how good the buñuelos had tasted.

After Las Virgenes the next event was Todos los Santos at the end of October. This is All Saints Day and is a public holiday. In my early days before I had learnt the customs, I naively asked after this holiday, “And so what did you do yesterday?” 

“We all went to the cemetery,” was the reply. 

This is the time when families go to put flowers on the graves of parents and grandparents. The cemetery of Palma became a mass of flowers. I never again asked about what students did on Todos los Santos.

Two things are changing around the end of October. Traditionally All Saints was the day when Mallorcans put on their winter coat for the first time. They bought a new one for the occasion and wore it proudly. But the custom has lapsed, I’m afraid.  The summers here are becoming longer, and now it is impossible to wear any coat at all at the end of October.

The second change is the growing popularity of Halloween. The children love it but for many it is more evidence of the McDonaldization of Mallorca. I will say no more!

In mid-November came Dijous Bo in Inca, a town in the centre of the island. Dijous Bo means Good Thursday and it was and still is a highlight in the year for the whole of Mallorca. It is a mixture of an agricultural show and a reunion for families and friends from all the villages nearby. The university in Palma stopped work for the day as most students and teachers made their way to Inca. It was not an official university holiday but everyone knew that there would be little activity on campus. Hundreds went by the old train from Palma because it was impossible to find a place to park in Inca that day. Every year Dijous Bo seemed to creep up on us without warning.   It arrived and the reaction was “Wow, it’s Dijous Bo again. That was quick. Where did the year go?”

After Dijous Bo came Christmas, and Palma celebrates Christmas to the full. There may not be quite so many Christmas trees and boughs of holly as in the north, but Mediterranean cities celebrate Christmas as earnestly as anywhere else. In fact, Christmas here deserves a letter of its own, and I will post it in December. The festivities begin with the great Christmas lottery on 22 December and continue to the night of the Three Kings on 5 January. Only after that do the children return to school, and only then does life become normal.

But it is not normal for long because on 20 January we celebrate San Sebastian, the patron of the city. The Christmas lights in the streets are left intact until San Sebastian has passed. On the evening of the 19th, fires are lit in the city squares and there the people have barbecues. Each square has a different type of live music. There may be classical music in one place, heavy rock in another and the latest pop in a third. We move from one to another as the mood takes us.

After San Sebastian, the second term went by quickly.  It is the coolest time of the year but on most days you can still eat outside in front of the restaurants and have a coffee at a table in the street by the bar. Then Easter led to the summer and almost before you realized it the heat began once more, and the tempo changed. Everyone moved more slowly and did less. Summer had arrived once more. With it came the end of term exams, the hours spent correcting them and then handing them back to the students.

Finally came the end of year meal with the class.  I remember one of first of these meals that I was invited to. Some of the group were criticising a nun who had been particularly strict at a convent school in Palma that several of them had attended.

“Do you know her too?” I asked the student next to me, who had so far said nothing.

“Yes, she is my aunt!” she said.

I realized then that the island is a small place, and that it is never safe to say anything to anyone about anybody.  

In years gone by, Palma shut down in August. Bars, restaurants and shops all closed. Almost everything closed. There was, and perhaps still is, an expression ‘Estar de Rodriguez’, ‘To be Rodriguez’. This referred to a married man who stayed working in the city while his wife and children were on the coast or staying with the grandparents in the “pueblo”, the hometown. The wife used to take the children away when the heat came, and then they all spent July, August and September out of the city. Yes, three months! Those were the days! What Rodriguez got up to in the hours of his loneliness is best left to the imagination.

But now times have changed and for the better.  Today, both parents have jobs, and families take their summer holiday together. And that holiday is much shorter than it used to be.  Now Mallorca is connected by computer to the rest of the busy world, and such a lull of activity cannot be tolerated. Today Palma is almost as busy in August as in any other month.     

After the summer, in late September, there were stirrings of normal life. The children went back to school. People thought about going back to English classes though, despite these pricks of conscience, nothing really happened until October and the approach of the feast of el Pilar on the 12th.   This is a national holiday, and with any luck it may fall on a Tuesday. If it does, there is the chance of making un puente, a bridge, By taking Monday off, you can enjoy a four day weekend! The same happens if it falls on Thursday, of course! ‘Viva el puente’ !

And here we are,  in October, back at the beginning of the year again.