A lot of hours driving, a lot of miles crossed, but here we were: Valencia again. We were fighting as we drove into the city, something about emotional coping mechanisms and how much compassion one should have with evil people. By the time I pulled in to a parking spot near the weekly Cabañal market, neither of us quite remembered how we’d gotten there.
But the mood quickly turned as we slipped into the bustling market streets; though not as lively as it used to be, apparently, it was impossible to stay grim with the bright colors, fabrics and trinkets, pants hanging from metal beams, purses laid out like a designer display case. This was supposedly one of the biggest markets in the region. Every Thursday morning, it popped up like a spontaneous flower patch, melting back into the ground later the same day.
“So I guess we should just pull a Jerez,” Vicente said, referring to our forced spontaneity in the South that led to a brilliant afternoon of Chinese food and conversation. This time, we had planned to try to set up a meeting with some Romanian Roma here — there are many groups in Valencia, and there are Romanian Roma working at the Cabañal market alongside Spanish Roma and non-Roma of different nationalities. But, well, things don’t always work out as planned.
Regardless, as we wandered through the maze of market streets, I learnt many details about market life. Vicente smiled as we passed a man who was spewing incessant pleasantries to passers-by — “that’s one of the oldest tricks”, he said. “All Roma know it. You make people feel good, then they are more likely to buy. Another thing that Roma used to do is to start calling out what they are selling, making a bit of a scene.”
We passed a Roma woman selling garlic, walking up and down the center of the street instead of occupying a stand. Garlic and rosemary are two things that you can often find people selling in the street. “Why?” I wondered aloud to Vicente. I thought it might have been the low start-up cost, which makes sense with some of the statements we have heard about a desire for economic independence; he said he didn’t really know, but that both garlic and rosemary have medicinal purposes, so maybe that was it.
Though we didn’t find any of the Romanian Roma that Vicente knew, we definitely found a lot of his Spanish Roma acquaintances. At the beginning, we were a little like lost sheep, wandering the market without aim; he even said that he was surprised at how few Roma were selling nowadays. But after 20 minutes like this, he started to see people he knew, and we began to stop every 5 meters for a hello here, a quick chat there.
Finally, we ended up at the stall of Jaro, a Spanish Roma family man who had let Vicente know he would be around the market on this day. His wife was there, while Jaro had wandered off somewhere. She chatted with us for a moment before going back to fixing her display. I thought about another comment Vicente had made, that you could tell a non-Roma stand from a Roma one because of the “particular aesthetic sense” of Roma vendors. I wasn’t completely sold on the distinction — I think I’d personally make a pretty aesthetically pleasing stand display — but I guess there is also something to be said for generations of expertise.
Finally, after I had feigned interest in a few more scarves and belts, we spotted Jaro around the corner. He greeted us extravagantly, inviting us immediately for a coffee, wearing a warm grin.
Later, Vicente and I would disagree about the value of the contents of the conversation that followed. For him, it was typical, nothing so special; just an ordinary coffee with a nice, ordinary guy. For me, that’s exactly what made it special: what is the point of this trip but to talk about the nice, ordinary coffees with nice, ordinary guys?
Jaro is a married man, and spoke to us a little about his family, how they are doing. He also mentioned his recent trip to the funeral of Paco de Lucia, the famous pallo friend and accompanist of Camarón de la Isla — the last time we were in Valencia, it turned out that most of the people we had hoped to meet were in Madrid to pay their respects to the man. Among these interviews-that-never-happened was one with a Roma drug dealer, a good guy who apparently explains his choice of occupation based on the fact that as Roma, society gives him few options of alternatives that would allow him to sustain himself. Irrespective of occupation, however, Paco de Lucia’s death was a worthy tragedy for many, including Jaro.
Besides Jaro’s life, much of our conversation over coffee revolved around the trip to India. “But really, neither of you is getting paid for this?” he kept asking, blunt about the fact that the whole thing made little sense to him. But by the end, he was absolutely on board with the idea. He even told Vicente, “You know, every time I speak to you, I have the impression that you’re flying. You don’t have your feet on this earth.”
After coffee, we rounded the corner to find the remnants of a market that had all but disappeared: stalls were reduced to nothing but a few beams here and there, still waiting on their owners’ attention. The men made a comment about the fact that the market used to be different; back in good economic times, there would still have been hoards of people on site, but now it had started closing earlier and earlier in the afternoon. In the middle of this post-carnival lull sat Jaro’s mother, a sweet-looking old lady who flashed her gold-toothed smile as we approached, flanked by her bearded son Sulman. Our group conversation sank into typical topics, such as their belief that Roma are originally from Israel, and the state of the church. We all laughed about one topic after another, Sulman showing off his English to me; before Vicente and I parted ways to find the car, we were invited to Jaro’s home for paella and more conversation.
I would love to say our Cabañal market experience ended there, that we didn’t spend the next exhausting two hours searching for a lost car and dealing with an increasing frustration with each other’s presence, but that wouldn’t be true. What is true, however, is that the beautiful relief of finally finding our “home” again (the good old Chevrolet) worked a miracle in easing the exasperation.
The lesson? Simple things. Simple things, even for the most complicated people — the ones that refuse to walk, instead building ways to “fly” — can work wonders.