Soap and Sensibility

It's raining today. Boy, have we been waiting for rain. I managed to plant out some cauliflower seedlings before it started and although it's still very gentle, it's given me an excuse to sit down and write. 

With the boys at school, I can hear my thoughts again. Our youngest started preschool this year at the age of three and a half. Coming from Finland and being used to children going to school at the age of six or seven, I was horrified when our eldest started at four and a half in England. Let them be children, care free! 
I'm sure I'm generally less precious with my second child, but mainly I'm being practical: he needs to go spend time with Catalan children, make friends, learn the language and get his foot in the door of integration before it becomes a conscious process to be intimidated by. Although you'd struggle to intimidate him if he continues to be the fearless lion boy that he is.

It's a strange experience noticing your children with some of your own characteristics. I see a lot of myself in our eldest, some things that make me feel close to him because we are similar, and other things that make me feel almost guilty: oh no, I've passed on the pain of being me! Our youngest must get his fierce and fearless nature from his father.

We have a farmer mentor and friend in the village, a Catalan man in his fifties, who we turn to with most of our agricultural dilemmas. He is the most helpful, mild mannered, gentle human being. His voice reflects his soft personality, it is calm and low, with a soothing resonance that makes you believe it's all going to be all right. 

We have come to know his mother a little bit too. She has just turned 80 and lives on her own with a wood fired stove, a vegetable garden and a load of chickens that she isn't shy of turning into a roast dinner. She is loud with a piercing voice, her arms move fast and sharp to punctuate the Catalan words that shoot out of her mouth as if she is constantly angry. 

The other day, she taught me her method for making soap with olive oil. We have made soap at home before, but I was interested to find out how different the process was. The chemistry lab-ness of soap making with its accurate measurements and temperatures doesn't naturally sit with me. I'm much happier with the more sensory art forms such as cooking, for example; adapting, tasting and adding as I go along. My grandmother would have made her own soap, albeit not with olive oil but with pig fat, and I don't imagine that having been scientific, but a traditional craft, which is what appeals to me.

I wasn't wrong. There was no heating of oil, no thermometers in sight, no gloves, no goggles. Just a garage, a bucket, a stirring stick and a one litre jug; water, caustic soda and old olive oil. She promptly poured it all in, the mixture turned bright orange. "That's never happened before!", she exclaimed. Whilst I stirred the mixture for the best part of an hour she showed me various old pieces of soap, one of which was made by her mother ("and she's been dead for 40 years!") and lace she was working on. "I get easily bored, I have to have something to do." 

The lack of science in the process meant the soap ended up being fairly rough and lumpy, and having had better results at home, I'm going to forget about the romance of tradition (when it comes to soap making) and hold onto my thermometer for now. Unless I can delve deeper into the local traditions and learn to make soap with almond peel and ashes.

But I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon with her. Her gestures and voice may be sharp, but she is pure gold inside. Solid and warm honesty shines through. Mother and son are more alike than it first seems. I wonder whether their likeness would be even greater if her husband was still around. The twenty years of solitude after his death may have forced her to toughen up somewhat. Or perhaps that's just who she is. I hope one day I will know her well enough to find out.