Part 1: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Donk
The earliest memory of my life as a young donk in the foothills of the Sierra Bernia in Parcent, is my donkey mother swaying to the sound of the flamenco tablao from the Restaurante La Piscina*, nextdoor to our big stable full of donkeys. When the guitars kicked in, and the castanets and stamping began – in the flamenco show put on for the tourists from the Costa Blanca resorts – my donkey mother started stamping and swaying to the music.
There were about twenty donkeys in our stables and they all joined in the zapateado – or foot-stomping – with great artistic fervour. They really put the ass into passion! Luckily, donkeys’ hooves make it difficult to wield castanets or do rhythmical hand clapping, or the stable would have been an even more alarming place for a young foal.
As if the noise was not distressing enough, the flamenco dancing made feeding on mother’s milk quite impossible between midday and four o’clock while lunch and the flamenco show continued at La Piscina restaurant. Have you any idea how difficult it is for a young foal to reach under and feed on mother’s milk when she is stamping a flamenco zapateo?
I wouldn’t go so far as to call my donkey-mother uncaring, but any donkey family social worker would have pronounced this an unsuitable environment for a young foal.
Don Francisco owned the restaurant and the large ganaderia alongside it, the animal sheds devoted mainly to animal husbandry. He bred horses, mules, donkeys and even had a small herd of goats that we chased around the paddock, threatening a corrida de cabras, which terrified them. Don Francisco’s main aim was to sell as many animals as possible, so his stud horses and donkeys were kept very busy ensuring every female equine was made pregnant as soon as possible. I was already with foal by the time I was a two-year old in those crowded stables, and one day a customer arrived to inspect Don Francisco’s donkeys.
“Well, burra, today is very special day,” Don Francisco addressed me. “I bring you an English señor after lunch Rubí, and you smile nicely at him because you will make me some money today! I can sell a donkey for twice the price to an English buyer!”
That was the day I first saw the Peasant. He arrived with his daughter and pretended to know something about choosing a donkey. He had read books about donkeys and had a friend in France who had introduced him to donkey-walking. Also, one day while on a cycling trip on the Le Puy route to Santiago de Compostela, he had seen a family group of adults and children hiking with two hired pack-donkeys. This took place beside the medieval abbey in Conques, and I will say more about the significance of that later. The English Peasant had resolved to stay in Spain for good and buy some donkeys, as you do if you are going to live properly in Spain.
We didn’t know much about the English. Most of Don Francisco’s restaurant customers were Germans who came in groups from the Denia and Calpe resorts and avoided holidaying anywhere further south, near Benidorm where all the vulgar English tourists stayed. We lived in Parcent in Marina Alta, and the English Peasant lived inland in Marina Baixa, the Lower Marina area where the coastal resorts are filled with English plebs on package holidays. All we knew about Germans was that they drank a lot of beer in Don Francisco’s restaurant while watching the flamenco spectacle, then wandered over to see us donkeys. They shouted, “Schau dir die Esel an!”
German sounded quite different to Spanish, and it struck most of us donkeys as a very appealing noise. So we all joined in the braying and this, in turn, caused more German noise. This usually ended up as a more lively spectacle than the flamenco! Don Francisco encouraged it because it meant selling more rounds of beer to his noisy German customers. But the arrival of the English Peasant and his daughter was a quieter affair. I hadn’t learned any English until then, so I had no idea what the Peasant was saying to his daughter. From the Spanish he spoke to Don Francisco, I gathered that he liked me. Don Francisco told the Peasant I was for sale. Usually, Don Francisco told visitors that most of us were for sale, but he seemed to be using the opportunity of an English customer to sell me.
“What is wrong with me, that a Spanish customer would not want me?” I puzzled. The other donkeys gathered around, including the twin sisters Balbina and Matilde who were bigger than me, and the Peasant started making a video while talking in English to his daughter, and in Spanish to Don Francisco.
“You will be fed very well indeed if the English can afford that sort of money!” said my mother, practising her flamenco zapateo as the music went on late in the restaurant.
“Alfalfa and the best mixed grain for the rest of your life,” said the dark horse from the separate stalls at the end of our pen.
“Yes, dear, but Rubí donkey is going to live in Marina Baixa…” said another horse, who was a pure bred Andaluz. “She will be slumming it with the English. I wouldn’t be surprised if this English Peasant keeps dwarf ponies or something awful.”
I didn’t really care too much about dwarf ponies, just as long as I could escape the flamenco and the stamping in the stable! The English customer seemed quite a caring kind of peasant, but it would be a while before I could be taken to live with him. The equine transfer paperwork had to be done and Spanish burrocracy takes months. Not only that, but the English Peasant told Don Francisco he wanted to come back later and choose a second donkey, as a companion for me. He would come back in a couple of weeks with a friend from France to help choose a suitable pack-donkey for walking.
Ah yes, France. I said earlier that the Peasant had first seen donkeys on the Compostela pilgrim road, next to the abbey in the medieval town of Conques. He told me about it a while later. The Peasant was chatting away as he groomed me with the hard brush, getting the sharp little bits of straw out of my mane and from behind my ears. Sometimes it seems like he reminds himself, from time to time, how the donkey experience began.
“I had cycled late into the night on the chemin Saint-Jacques in the rain,” said the Peasant. “And I arrived in the early hours at the abbey in Conques, far too late to find somewhere to stay. So I slept under the abbey porch in my sleeping bag, on the dry stone steps, keeping out of the pouring rain.”
The Peasant changed to the soft brush to flick the fine bits of straw off my forehead and around my eyes.
“I woke up early and went to the 7 o’clock Mass in Conques abbey,” he said… (I noted in passing that there is an ass in Mass.) “And then I came out into the rain again to find some breakfast, and a family walked down the cobbled street walking the way of Saint James. Pilgrims walking with two pack donkeys! I took some photographs to capture the moment…”
The Peasant stopped brushing and said, “At that very minute, I knew I should have donkeys! It all goes back to that day, and then meeting Barbara with her donkeys in France a few years later.”
“That’s very interesting,” I replied.
I did not say more, as you should never distract a Peasant when he’s giving you a good grooming. But all donkeys know about the abbey at Conques. It is one of the holy places for donkeys. The abbey holds the relics of Saint Foy. Among the miracles attributed to Saint Foy are four occasions… yes, not just once but four occasions! in which she brought a dead donkey back to life! Raising donkeys from the dead is a fairly rare kind of miracle but it was enough to get Saint Foy a sainthood, so don’t knock it. She also performed minor miracles, like helping a prisoner escape when he prayed to her: she sent him an ass to help him escape; but you’d probably say most saints could do that kind of thing. However, it was a more subtle kind of miracle: Saint Foy persuaded the prisoner to leap from a high window, then provided a celestial ass to catch him in mid-air and bear him to safety; much as a donkey bore the Holy Family into safety in Egypt to escape Herod. Even the flight into Egypt was not actual flying, so maybe Saint Foy’s flying donkey miracle is an even better one than the flight into Egypt. I don’t know, I’m not a theologian.
But I must not get too far ahead of myself. At this stage in my autoburrography I am still in Parcent, where I have just been bought by the Peasant. Thank you for reading Part 1. Next week I continue recalling my early days in Parcent, and the Peasant returns to La Piscina restaurant to buy his second donkey. A new friendship begins.
*Restaurante La Piscina, Parcent, Marina Alta, Alicante. Flamenco tablao during summer months only. Speciality, wild boar (jabalí). https://www.restaurantelapiscinadeparcent.com
2 thoughts on ““Yes, we Asno Bananas” – the Rubí autoburrography”
Well done Rubí for getting Part 1 completed. I’m sure readers will enjoy your autoburrography. Regarding the donkey trekking in France, this article written in 2017 seems to suggest exactly where the donkeys walking through Conques were hired: Emma Beddington, “Not horsing around: donkey trekking in rural France,” (with more pictures of Conques.)
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Thank you for suggesting “Yes, we Asno Bananas” as a title for my autoburrography, but it reminds me we haven’t had bananas since the Feast of the Ass. Do we have to wait until Palm Sunday for our next bananas?
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