The last few months have been pretty packed. Although I have barely had time to skip to the bathroom on the longer days, I have had almost no personal commitments.
I had anticipated spending the majority of my time in Antibes, eating baguette, practicing my French and taking lengthy evening runs along the promenade. Instead, I have spent the past three months in Mallorca, and while this is the largest of the Balearic Isles, it’s still a pretty small spit of rock a fair few miles from mainland Europe. I’ve substituted the baguettes for bocadillos and French for dramatic hand signalling, but fortunately for me, Palma’s famous walkway is clear of rollerbladers and cyclists, making it the perfect stroll for the wide-eyed tourist.
Life in Palma
I have never seen so many boats in once place. If one stands on Avinguda di Gabriel Roca, the marinas stretch out beyond sight to both the left and right. When the wind picks up, the tinkling of rigging against mast can be heard a kilometre inland. Instead of church bells, Palma’s religious calling is to the sea.
Despite this, the Cathedral de Majorca is a remarkable place. The oldest Gothic cathedral in Europe, the construction of 'La Seu' spanned eight centuries, coming to a close in the 20th century under the eye of Anton Gaudí.
One of the greatest events in the cathedral's calendar is the winter solstice, when the stained glass rose window aligns exactly with the sun. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the country for that spectacle, though the inverse effect, the summer solstice, was breathtaking enough. My camera hadn’t a hope of capturing the rich reds cast across the dim interior from the 61 windows and I won’t tie myself in knots trying to describe the effect. Some architectural feats are miraculous enough to speak for themselves.
The cathedral is charmingly overdone - there’s no mistaking its almost laughable size and grandeur. The imposing nightlit facade dwarfs the innumerable masts below. Returning from Algeria by night, I found it to be a better homeward marker than any lighthouse.
The cathedral walls became my hideout when living in a space trampled by dayworkers and contractors got too confining. After the tourists make for the bars of Santa Catalina, when the last pedlars have turned for home and the remaining busker begins playing for pleasure rather than tips, the cathedral probably best represents what Gaudí would have wished for it. Lying on the furthest corner of the warmed battlements, one can look out from the city towards the sea and feel entirely alone. Palma is an incredible city, but a loud and public one with few quiet spaces. This was my favourite.
As a congested hub with more boats than she has berthings for, Palma unfortunately also attracts her fair share of cruise liners. These pull into the commercial dock in tandem, coughing up tens of thousands of Brits into the tourist hotspots where they queue for ice cream and curios before being summoned back by the horn's unflattering blast. The port rings incessantly with the reverberated sound of the departing ferries and liners. I loved the city and its unabashed fervour, but during tourist season, nothing ever stops.
Working in Mallorca was exactly that. However, I loved waking up to sunrise across the water and chasing it along the Paseo Maritimo before my morning shift. I loved the feel of community in Palma and their proud investment in arts and culture. I loved the graffiti and its respectful absence from historical landmarks.
I loved the Spanish fruits, particularly the citrus. When the Moors took control of Al-Andalus in 711AD, they brought with them all the reminders of Northern Africa to Spain. Mallorca is a fertile hotbed for good grapes and explosively ripe tomatoes. Whenever I run provisioning for the boat I buy local. It tastes better, and there’s something pleasing knowing that produce was picked ripe that morning, by a farmer located a mere 30 km north.
My French is better than my Spanish, and even that is about as rusty Cape Town's Metrorail. Working in an international environment with limited hours off and in close proximity to the tourist attractions made it easy to rely on English.
However, there are certain non-negotiables to life in Spain. The people are happy to try to speak your language, but not your culture. I learnt that ‘Spanish time’ takes into account not only a siesta, but also a lie-in of indeterminate length. This affects everyone's punctuality, from bus drivers to contracted painters. Hurrying a Spaniard is an impossibility, and the faster one learns that, the better.
Spanish survival phrases
Having to allergen-check each ingredient on every jar I bring aboard has meant I developed a limited culinary vocabulary pretty fast. For some reason, a-foods are usually the ones to look out for. I’ve learnt to skim read labels, picking my way through the a's with a radar heightened by the pressure of filling a boat with enough food to feed seven people for three weeks.
Even in the stinkiest foods sound sexy in Spanish, which I guess is a consolation. I can’t speak the language, but I can rifle off a sultry list of irritants. Some of my favourites are:
Alcachofa - artichoke
Aguacate - avocado
Aceite de girasol - sunflower oil
Almendras - almonds
Anchoa - anchovy
Anacardos - cashews
Azùcar - sugar
The only one that ruins the effect is ‘aceituna' - olive. Nothing glamorous about that.
There are obviously complications when relying on Google. Not only does it double the time stuck in an aisle lined with every type of unrecognisable puffed grain (the Spanish love legumous tapas), but it is also rather literal. I’ve created anarchy among a grocer’s management who could not understand what I was asking for. I was 40 minutes into checkout, with a queue of irritated mothers huffing at the yacht logo stitched into my pristinely-starched uniform, when I was approached with a grotesque sea creature of indeterminate species.
An hour earlier I’d requested ‘bajo’ from the fishmonger, having recently been complimented by my guests on a fishy dinner. I thought I had served sea bass, though I have since worked out that 'bajo' literarily translates as ‘based’. I have therefore resorted to substituting the dish with less complex ‘merluza’ (hake) or ‘bacalao’ (cod), but what I originally plated remains a mystery.
Most of my provisioning trips took place in the sticks, off remote anchorages ill-serviced by taxi or bus. I have been neglected on highways in San Antonio and trekked seven kilometres between the (closed) supermarkets of Alcùdia. I have come to dread manoeuvring the 20kg load back to whichever nondescript wall I was dropped off at. There’s always a moment of panic that the grocery bags won’t fit into the tender, let alone the limited galley storage.
I don’t spend all of my life provisioning. Not quite.
There are a few other necessary survival phrases I’ve had to pick up to get by. They’re indicative of everything that makes working in the Balearics incredible and frustrating. As exciting and expressive as I find Mallorca, the people are the least sympathetic I’ve met. They’ve had it up to their eyebrows with us English (and yes, I can speak for Paris).
'Uno momento' - one moment
Heaven forbid you hurry a Spaniard. The phrase is usually accompanied by a raised finger shaken vigorously at nose-height. I have yet to learn how long a Spanish 'momento' is, and it can be used in any situation, ranging from a lengthy chat with a friend to a painfully laborious separation of brown coins into piles of ten. Use this often, and you fit right in. It works well in conjunction with 'manyana' (tomorrow).
'No pasa nada' - no problem
The heat and humidity of the island is probably a contributor to the truncation of this expression. It can be shorted to ’de nada’, ’nada’, or simply a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders and chin tilt. Spanish is amazingly versatile. Somehow, no matter the context, I always come away feeling guilty when this is tossed back at me over the counter or phone line.
'Perdón' - pardon
Also an accusation. You’re in the way. Kindly remove yourself.
'Puerto' - port
The first thing I was told when I arrived in Palma was that if I should ever get lost (which I do, a lot), I ought to aim downhill to the sea. Sound logic. However, on an island, the ocean is never far. Faced with this many interlaced marinas and identical anchorage bays, knowing how to find the nearest commercial port is critical. Nobody misses the ugliness of an industrial port against the idyllic blue of the Mediterranean in June. Ports are big and smoky and smelly and grey - the perfect reference point when seeking out one mast in a million.
There are many things I don't understand about Palma de Mallorca. For example, though I am an avid fan of local produce, my enthusiasm stops when it extends to tarring the roads using soapstone due to its abundance. I love siesta, but not when I need to buy lunch.
It's not a city for the FOMO-prone. It is forever abuzz with bizarre festivals ('Yoga Meets Beer') or impromptu sidewalk symphonies worthy of a concert hall. Palma is the only place I have ever been yelled at throughout a 90-minute yoga lesson ('cinco, cuatro, tres-dos-uno, arriba!'), and I loved it. It's unashamedly itself, a mismatched collection of cultural influences, dialects and pronunciations, all united by one love: boats.