Damien Enright: Fruit trees are laden with their bounty as we prepare to leave

On June 26, we sat outside the first bar to open here since lockdown began on March 15. There are only two bars in the valley. Cafes serve drinks, but these are bar-bars, the kind that stay open after midnight.
Damien Enright: Fruit trees are laden with their bounty as we prepare to leave
View of Valle Gran Rey, La Gomera, on the Canary Islands in Spain

On June 26, we sat outside the first bar to open here since lockdown began on March 15. There are only two bars in the valley. Cafes serve drinks, but these are bar-bars, the kind that stay open after midnight. There are no discos or clubs; it's a quiet place, the Valle Gran Rey, La Gomera. At night, the only sound is the sea breaking and the shearwaters attracted by the harbour lights.

Almost all 20 clients were locals, gathered around tables with generous space between. Many called hellos and one man came over to stand nearby and talk. He knew my son well, and recognised me from when he was a teenager. After he left, Fintan told me he was one of the "Inglés" family. His eyes were blue. Blue eyes give the family its name.

In local lore, in the 1700s, a Gomera sailor returned to the island with a blue-eyed English wife. Their children, and family children, down the generations, always had blue eyes. So, the "Ingléses". My son's wife, a geneticist, was able to tell us about blue eyes and brown. A baby's eye colour is determined by the parents' eye colour and whether the parents' genes are dominant or recessive genes.

In the case of eye colour, brown is the dominant gene, and will 'mask' blue, a recessive gene. Given that almost 100% of Gomeros have brown eyes It is extraordinary serendipity that blue eyes persist in the "Ingléses". Local lore holds that the English great-great-great grandmother started it all and it's still characteristic of that family, centuries later.

We blue-eyed people have a single, common ancestor. Originally, everybody had brown eyes. The mutation occurred between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Brown eyes have more protective melanin than blue eyes; the latter, having less pigment are more sensitive to sunlight, but the "Ingléses" have suffered no harmful effects.

Later that night, as we readied ourselves to stroll home, three pretty young girls, the eldest 13, suddenly ran up to us, full of excitement. They'd been to a children's evening of some sort. It is heartening testament to this island that, thanks to local culture and street lighting, small girls could safely make their own way home at midnight. Daughters of three different families, two were neighbours of my son and his wife.

Mangas and stubby Canarian bananas: Mangas are the one to eat; mangoes are stringy and get stuck in the teeth. They're best for juicing. Picture: Damien Enright
Mangas and stubby Canarian bananas: Mangas are the one to eat; mangoes are stringy and get stuck in the teeth. They're best for juicing. Picture: Damien Enright

What took my immediate attention was the way they spoke in fluent and absolutely natural Spanish, English and German. Apparently they all spoke four languages fluently — the aforementioned three plus, individually, their parent's Estonian, Swiss-German and Czech. They chattered away, totally at home in each language, changing them as the occasion or passing friends required.

It's a common phenomenon here, with children of ex-pat, or half-local-half-ex-pat, parentage. I'm ashamed with only minimal Irish, work-a-day Spanish and fluent English to offer. Two of my offspring speak English, Spanish and Catalan, two speak English, another European language and Irish little better than my own. The others speak English only.

How much more understanding of diverse cultures must accrue to those who speak polyglot tongues, and surely the sooner we quit less tribal/nationalist attitudes, the better the hope for the world.

Meantime, we are enjoying, while regretting, the goodbye parties as we prepare to come home. It's the season of all-fruiting on this island; ripe mangoes, plums, loquats and lychees litter the pathways in the hills. The other evening, at their country farmhouse, our Gomero friends had a basket containing 30kg of plums at the door, with two laden trees ready to harvest. It's unlikely they would be used because everybody has plums now. There is the seasonal glut of every fruit.

As our friends said, if they could be transported to places where people are starving, they could have them for free. But the cost of collection, boxing, refrigeration, shipping and distribution would make them unaffordable. But, is it not a cruel world where, there, we see parched deserts and destitute people while, here, we cannot but watch carpets of ripe fruit rotting beneath the trees?

In a nearby valley there is a legendary German who bought land decades ago and spent every holiday visit here throughout his working life planting fruit trees. Now, retired, he daily walks the avenues of 400 trees bearing 100 varieties of fruit using a toothbrush to clean the leaves of harmful bugs or blights.

Rats invaded the orchards. He brought in families of cats to cull them. The rats took to living in the canopies, never touching ground, and now he has to feed thirty cats. He would give the fruits of his trees free to the local world, but who here, with their own burgeoning orchards, would want them?

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