“People are like potatoes” – storytelling in Galicia

Avelino GonzalezYou can’t spend long in Galicia without someone telling you a story about  witches, fairies, ancient legends, weird rituals and strange tales that may have had an element of truth way back in time but are now part of the folklore of the region.

When I was there with Tesouros de Galicia (Treasures of Galicia) and the International National Trusts Organisation, we visited the medieval fortress of San Paio de Narla in the tiny village of Castronela in the depths of the countryside near Lugo. The fortress is now a museum of Galician traditional life, including a kitchen with a huge hearth with enormous cooking pots hanging over it. Having been on the go all morning, we made a beeline for a round table laden with plates of cheese, octopus, pieces of empanada pie and lots more – as well as Ribeira Sacra wines. As we were helping ourselves, a smiling man came over and introduced himself as Avelino González. He explained that he was a storyteller, and that while we were stuffing ourselves and knocking back the wine, he was going to tell us a few tales about Galicia. We poured him a glass of wine, he started talking, and within minutes we were captivated. It’s not that usual, once you pass childhood, to have someone telling you stories, but it was a wonderful experience. Here is one of Avelino’s tales…

“In Coristancos, about 30 miles from Santiago, lived the Lourenço family. And this family lived on potatoes, as did everyone around there. It was a very large family, but they had a bit of a problem: each generation was shorter than the one before. The grandfather was 4ft tall, but his 24 children only reached a height of about 3 ft, and all of his 75 grandchildren were under 3 ft. The more the family grew in number, the faster they shrank in stature. The more the family reproduced, the sooner they would disappear altogether. The grandfather was very  worried about his family and knew he had to think of a way to solve their problem. Eventually, he got them all together to explain the idea he had come up with. ‘Look at our potatoes,’ he said, ‘they are big, they are beautiful but where do we get our potato seeds from? From the mountains. From hard land, where only the strongest potatoes can grow. And when we bring the seeds here and plant them in our valley, which is gentler, more fertile land, they increase in size and in number. People are like potatoes. So we must behave like potatoes. We must refresh our own seed and then we will flourish.’  Pointing to his grandson Fuco, he said, ’You, Fuco, must finish with your girlfriend, Aurora. I know you love here and I am really fond of her too, because she loves dancing and singing and laughs while she is feeding the pigs, but, but… not to put to fine a point on it, she is very tiny.  So you have to dump her, I’m afraid. There’s nothing else for it. And I will find you a new partner at the next monthly livestock market, as there are always plenty of nice women there.

Fuco wasn’t that keen on the idea, not so much because of Aurora herself, as he wasn’t really that crazy about her anyway, but because he was totally addicted to her cakes – she was very good at baking.  It was one thing giving up his girlfriend, he could cope with that, but he didn’t think he could live without her cakes.

But his grandfather was adamant. If Fuco didn’t leave his girlfriend, he threatened to sell everything the family had and then drown himself in a teapot. So the family gave in and agreed to his proposal. They went to the market and the grandfather chose a girl called Patricia – which means someone who comes from the land. Patricia was a very good choice – good family, pale skin, thick legs, big feet, wide, childbearing hips, green eyes – like the green potato leaves. She didn’t laugh very much because she was missing a couple of teeth, but she was very tall, which was the all important thing of course.

The two families agreed to meet at the market the following month, when they all had a traditional Galician lunch together – octopus, cheese, ham, beef, wine… and while both families were having a siesta afterwards, Fuco went for a walk with Patricia. Well, actually, Patricia went for a walk, cradling Fuco in her arms as if he was a baby. And Fuco was very happy with his head resting on her ample bosom.

They got married, and within a year their first baby was born. The grandfather was very happy, because the baby was as big as Fuco had been when he was 10 years old. The second one was as tall as his grandfather, and the third one, a daughter, was nearly as tall as her mother. The grandfather was happy, but not long afterwards he was run over by a lorry and that was the end of him.

But he died happy and proud, because his theory had been proved to be true. His family never put a flower on his grave; instead, they planted potatoes and when they grew, they ate them.

And his epitaph was, of course, ‘People are like potatoes’.”

You can read more about the new Treasures of Galicia organisation here

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