One thing I will never do: buy a farm in rural Spain. One thing I will never, ever do: buy a farm in rural Spain with no running water or electricity. One thing I will never, ever, ever do: buy a farm in rural Spain with no running water or electricity with no access by road. And you need to cross a stream (or river, depending on the season) with no bridge.
My “never do” list is exactly what Chris Stewart does in Driving Over Lemons. At least Chris had traveled the world as an itinerant sheep shearer, so he did not have any big-city delusions when he moved to the farm. But how can one ever be ready for a life this unplugged. This book is always filed with travel non-fiction because it is set in a foreign country, but there is no travel involved. Armchair travelers will want to pick up a different book. Instead, this is a book about country living, complete with all of the pleasantries: drinking costa, a local brown wine, on the veranda; walking in the mountains; relaxing in the cool streams. But there are plenty of unpleasantries, too: rotting goat carcasses, slaughtering pigs by hand, and the flies, oh, the flies. While Stewart speaks often of the flies and insects, I don’t think we ever get the true essence of their nuisance. He doesn’t complain much (thus the book’s subtitle: An Optimist in Andalucia), despite the difficulties of rural life, such as hiking up mountains in search of chestnut roofing beams for his house (which was described as a “stable” by the author’s mother), chasing his lost sheep over miles of hill and dale, and building his own water system by some complex means which I will never understand without a diagram.
The lemons, pictured on the cover and in the title, make a cameo on page two, never to appear again. This is not about retiring to a country home and picking fresh lemons off the tree for lemonade. This is a book about honest-to-goodness farming.
The blurbs on the back of the book suggest this book picks up where Peter Mayle left off: Englishman moves to Spain and has many adventures. But there are few adventures to follow, as nearly all of the book (except for the occasional trip into the mountains or to the market) takes place on the farm. The Daily Mail’s review suggests that we will want to “tuck [the book] into our holiday luggage and dream.” Yet, there is little here for me to dream about. I may dream of a simple life. But, while my simple life may not include air conditioning, it does include other creature comforts: a bed without insects raining down on it, access via jeep to the outside world, a dog that does not attack my sheep. Stewart’s writing makes his choice seem like the perfect lifestyle for him. Unfortunately, as I sit here in the air conditioning on my computer, I find it a bit difficult to relate. Nonetheless, for a tale of adventures in country living, this is an excellent read. Stewart certainly faces more challenges than Mayle (and a lot fewer fine dining experiences, unless you count “poor man’s potatoes” cooked over an open fire). I feel as if, after reading this book, I could take his tale and rewrite it as A Pessimist in Andalucia, in which I buy a farmhouse, try to build a road, a bridge, and a water system, get eaten by insects, lose my chickens and sheep to the foxes, give up in misery, and leave the land to nature. Never did I feel that his experience would be the typical expat experience. It is a job for the rugged and confident only, and if this is a journey you want to embark on, Stewart is the perfect person to take you there.
Overall: Great book about country living, but it doesn’t qualify as a travel book.