by Bonnie Cullen
When Bonnie Cullen arrives in 1976, the island of Ibiza is a backwater of post-Franco Spain, a place where farmers scythe by hand, leap over fires at Midsummer. Over the next four decades she will witness its transformation into the clubbing capital of the world.
Cullen is a city dropout in search of a “more authentic” life. But how to deal with an amorous shepherd, or face the slaughter of your favourite pig? Years later, she will have to confront a heroine from the Civil War and learn to sleep when the thunk-thunking stops in the last club at dawn. Rootless, despite a deep attachment to Ibiza and its people, the writer revisits two ghosts – an orchard and an ancient spring. When the Water Speaks is a story of both person and place, dealing with change.
The narrative begins on a train heading south. Cullen has been working in London art museums, but personal circumstances take her to Spain in 1976, and the remote island of Ibiza. Most of the inhabitants are self-sufficient farmers, still impoverished from the Civil War. Their ancient tools and methods look like illustrations in medieval manuscripts. She shares a series of ruined farmhouses with friends. Eventually, a teaching position opens at an English school. Hiking to work, Cullen grows fond of the landscape and meets the “artists”: “Rather squat on average, and sturdy-looking under their straw hats, they are remarkably good-natured about aliens popping up in the middle of it.” At the end of 1978, she leaves for a short break, not knowing it will last for several years.
When she returns in the mid-‘80s with a partner and two children, Spain has been transformed, politically. The country has a Socialist prime minister and is about to join the EU. The family settle in a small village among farmers who have been there for generations and workers from the mainland, cheap labor for Ibiza’s booming tourist industry. Their daughters are embraced but the author is as isolated as a ‘Fifties housewife, scrubbing clothes in the tub. She tries to fit in, inviting all the children to a birthday party, tiptoeing between factions as she makes friends. A contract for a book on the Balearic Islands opens a door, but financial difficulties send the family back to America.
Part III of When the Water Speaks opens in the present, on a balcony in the city of Santa Eulalia. It is August and the annual bacchanal is reaching its climax. By the end of the tourist season, between one and two million people will have arrived on this small island, many headed for the never-ending party in the clubs. Revisiting friends from the past, excavating odd bits of Ibiza’s history, Cullen travels through the facade of the “Holiday Babylon” to a very different place.