‘So, let me get this straight’, says Julian. ‘My mission for this morning is to go to Portugal and find Joe?’
We laugh at how absurd my request sounds. We are walking down the steep hill from the huge fortification of Castillo de Santo Antonio. We are in Spain, and I want us to go to Portugal to find a man called Joe before we return to Spain to pick the kids up from school. Real Mr and Mrs Smith stuff.
‘Where would I even begin?’ Julian asks in jest.
A little over 200 metres across the river lies Portugal. I’ve written before about the joys and tribulations of living on an international boundary, living with two time zones, two languages, two cultures. I still get confused when I cross the border (which I do almost daily), mixing up my ‘Bom dia’s and my ‘Buenos dias’s. Life on the border keeps you on your toes.
On Friday morning, after Julian drops the girls off at school, we walk up the steep hill to Castillo de Santo Antonio, one of the most impressive of the fortifications that dot the river on both sides. For the Romans and the Moors the river was not a boundary but a lively flowing highway of trade and conquest. Since the 13th Century onwards, Castilla (Spain) and Portugal have been staring warily across the river at each other, each building more immense and impenetrable fortifications to keep the other out. In these less militaristic times in Europe, when both countries share an almost Europe-wide currency, when open European borders and the Schengen Agreement have all but negated national boundaries, the national ideal of Spain and Portugal as separate entities persists. For their governments at least.
But what does the boundary mean to the people who live along it? Despite different languages the people here share an agrarian history and culture based on olives, vines and sheep. Today the border villages face similar uncertain futures due to population decline and the pull of bigger cities. Love has flourished across the river for centuries and there are mixed families on both sides, melding and blending Spanishness and Portugueseness. Movement across the river is constant, not only for the many visitors who come here (including those thrill-seekers who zip-wire from Spain to Portugal!), but for the local people too. The river is no boundary, but a highway of communication and trade, linking people with cultures and beliefs more similar than different.
As I write this, in a Spanish bar, the very Joe I was looking for, a Portuguese man, has just walked in. Julian and I went looking for him this morning. When we came down from the mountain we motored across in our dinghy to Portugal. We didn’t find Joe but found someone who could give us his phone number. I called him, had a chat with him. He asked me where I would be in the afternoon.
‘I’ll be over in Spain’, I told him.
‘Ok’, he said. ‘I’ll pop over later. See you then’.
Just like that. I’ll pop over later. Across the ancient international boundary.