Winter light in Ibiza will do the cranky soul well

A man paying for his groceries at a supermarket checkout asks the cashier: “Can I have a plastic bag, please?”

“It’s in the fish, sir,” the cashier answers.

Fishing is still a way of life for some on this Mediterranean island, and the variety of fish at the stalls in the market is spectacular. I didn’t venture to take a photograph as I wasn’t buying fish but I’ll do so when there’s another resplendent display on January 5 the day before the Spanish Christmas, known as Los Reyes, the Kings, the day devout Spaniards believe the three kings came to the Bethlehem stable to welcome the infant Jesus into the world.

The seafood extravaganza will, likely, equal the one of December 23 and 24 for, latterly, locals seem to have adopted the celebrations of the 25. as in most other Christian parts of the world.

Many of the fish species can be caught in Irish waters, but we don’t tend to favour them in our cuisine. Red gurnard is an example. They certainly look exotic, with spines and body armour everywhere, including on the head and nose. But the armour also extends within and many fish-eaters think them too bony to be worthwhile. Good for the gurnard, to be considered not worth catching.

When we found them amongst supplies of by-catch for our domestic-but-wild heron, we would trim them of dangerous protuberances for fear they’d get caught in his willowy neck and that’d be the end of him. So tough is the armour that if the fish was any longer than 15cm we’d need a formidable scissors to do the job.

In Ibiza, Ibicenco, a dialect of Catalan, is the language favoured by the native people. Two of my sons used to speak it, along with Barcelona Catalan and Madrid Castiliano. I used to be able to count in it, and say “very good” and “good man yourself!” but that was long ago, and near forgotten.

The other day, I came across a word I used to know and was surprised I didn’t remember because, with when those two sons were children, they’d often shriek it out when we were at the seaside.

It was painted on the wall of a small house on a beach known as Talamanca, opposite Ibiza town. Vila Cranc, it said. It was a temptation to think that the owner was dyspeptic and awkward about everything, but surely not.

How could he or she be ill-tempered, with a home in such an agreeable spot. However, the house was not new and, perhaps, they got annoyed at the huge numbers of holidaymaker that in recent decades and disported themselves on the beach only 10 metres from their front door all summer.

When I used to go to Talamanca with the boys, there wouldn’t be a soul on the sand. But that was then: now, even in winter there were regular passers-by using the boardwalk that runs past the front door.

What, I wondered, is the meaning of the Catalan word “cranc”? It turns out to be “crab”. So, it’s “Vila Crab”, not “Vila Cranky”.

But, I reflected, how appropriate is the Catalan word when one considers the feature of a crab, that is to say, if you look it straight in the face. It does, indeed, look cranky, swinging its claws as if wanting to grab you, and moving its mouth part as if wanting to chew you and eat you.

It’s strange that the ill-tempered association of the Catalan name is also found in English — we say that someone is “cranky” if they’re awkward and out-of-sorts. The etymology says that the source is the German word “krank”, meaning sick and thus, I suppose, ill-humoured. (I ask from where, then, comes the word “crank shaft”? I have no idea, except to say that if your crank shaft is cranky, you’ll be cranky too.)

Meanwhile, it really is a stunningly beautiful town, Ibiza. I am in awe. I suppose to say it’s ‘stunning’ is to say I am knocked out by its beauty — but knocked unconscious, no: the opposite! On these sunlit days (warm in the sun: cold in the shade) I am so inspired by its beauty that I babble incoherent paeans of admiration about it to my long-suffering friend.

Of course, words can’t do it justice.

Now, in winter, in the winter silences, uncrowdedness and winter light, I think it’s one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever seen.

But can I remember them all? Time and the sheer number clouds the memory.

I may have to award that accolade to Ibiza, which was in part, my genesis. But Cork and the Lee, in evening light, is stunning too.

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