Through one of those random events in life (or perhaps because of the way our childhood and its scenarios keep playing out in a circular, repetitive and rhythmic way throughout our adult lives) I have ended up residing in the village where my family and I always spent our summers. My home is a fourth-floor walkup inside a century-old wooden building located in Puebla Vieja de Laredo, in the northern Spanish region of Cantabria. From its windows, I look out on a magpie (I feel like it is always the same one) perched on the roof of the Romanesque-style church. The house is about three kilometers and a whole world away from the residential beachfront area where my grandfather bought an apartment in the 1970s “for two million pesetas” (around $13,000), as he would repeat tirelessly with amazement and the conviction that this figure still meant something, whatever that something may have been.
I, too, have gotten into the habit of informing whoever will listen about the fact that we paid less than €100,000 for the property where we now live, as if it were the magic number that explains why I am here, a number that justifies me and grounds me to this place, when the truth is that other than my hometown, there is no place where I have lived longer than right here in Laredo. The apartment that, until my grandfather’s death, belonged to my family, became my mother’s first refuge when she separated and found herself in the street with me; my social phobia began during that month of July when the residential complex was taken over by a swarm of children whose presence forced me to hide in the bathroom so I would not hear them pressing on the buzzer and asking in that exasperating, collective little voice: “Why don’t you come down?” In that apartment and in this town I lived with two different husbands and several lovers, I made my debut and retired as a lighting technician in a play that we put on in the cultural center, I began to plot La línea del frente (or The front line), I wrote my doctoral thesis and penned Cambiar de idea (Changing my mind), but despite all this, I did not feel properly connected to Laredo as a resident until I walked out of the notary’s office with the deeds to my own tilted house — each day a little more tilted and at the mercy of the dune over which we cross our fingers. And that is because, until then, I had not lived in the real village but rather in the simulacrum that surrounds it. I had remained on the margins of privilege and tourism, where people who really are from here go to work so that you, who are not from here, can rest.
Now that we are part of the local census, during the winter we never enter that ecosystem that runs parallel to the beach and looks like the set of a musical, one whose season only runs during the tourism high season, I mean. But in the summer, taking a bus to visit the area where my family’s apartment was located is almost an interstellar excursion, a way of going on vacation without leaving your own town, a class carnival. Laredo, which has 10,000 registered inhabitants, almost multiplies its population by 10 (not so its services) during the month of August, and the excess population stays in this sleeping city that is resurrected like a vampire in mid-June, with the first drops of warm blood. Here, everything is born and dies with the change of seasons and possesses the charm of what is ephemeral. We know that half of the new establishments that have sprouted this season will not survive the winter, because being profitable is an impossible task for a business that only operates three months out of the year and is subject to ever-rising rent. We also know that the substitution rate of these beachfront neighborhoods is almost absolute: if someone walks their dog through its streets in October, it is unlikely that they will continue to do so in July. In Laredo, most long-term rentals are only from September to June; the owners kick out the tenants after that, and in three months on Airbnb they make the same amount that the expelled tenants paid them in nine.
At the beginning of August, I met a friend for lunch in the main hotel area of this seasonal setting, to feel for a few hours that the town was putting on a show for me too. After waiting almost an hour for an outdoor table, we took a seat, received our orders, then my friend’s dog began to bark at the identical rottweilers of a Scandinavian family that was already there when we arrived. The owner of the establishment came out like a madman and kicked us out (just us, mind), arguing that dogs are not allowed on the premises. It was all so confusing that I don’t know whether I should get very angry or just a little angry; I don’t know if, as a good resident, I should understand that August is an exceptional month for anyone working in the hospitality industry and that no display of stress or violence should be taken seriously, or whether I should attribute what happened to the fact that I look too much like a local resident. That all the effort invested by the establishment in Ibiza-inspired decoration and water sprinklers was not meant for me, that this is not my place. Suddenly, fleetingly, I felt that I should be in another outdoor dining area, in another town, in another place, contributing to the hour-long traffic jams at the roundabouts leading to another beach, going to the emergency room to get treated for sunstroke at a clinic without backup doctors in a region that is not my own; buying toilet paper from another supermarket, and feeding the wheel of this toxic tourism in exchange for feeling fully entitled to my mojito afterward.
Ultimately, can you describe what I do in the summer as a vacation? Staying at home and transforming my office into a yoga room, spending time with my plants, finally playing with my daughter and all the toys she received during the year, leaving the car parked for a month? How awful, right? Of course it is a privilege to live year-round in a beautiful and cool environment, and I do not intend to give lessons to those who only dream of escaping, but what a shame, what a collective failure that the cities in which we live are so unbearable that summer is not summer if it doesn’t happen beyond our homes, where on the other hand we barely spend time during the working months. Hopefully there will be such a seismic change towards habitability that no one will want to go anywhere when the time for rest finally arrives. Or even better: hopefully the resting place will also be the place of residence, and travel only a work requirement. Let me tell you, I am praying for it.
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