Becoming Jiennense: or, how one Masshole found a home in Jaén

There’s a popular saying here in Jaén – “se entra llorando y se sale llorando”.

In other words, you arrive to Jaén in tears of desperation, asking yourself what in God’s name you’ve done to verge so far from your life’s path to have found yourself deep within Spain’s olive country on a sweltering 40C/100F degree day, and you leave feeling a sense of attachment and cariño for a city that you never thought you’d grow fond of.


The first time I heard this phrase it came from my quirky Airbnb host, barely distinguishable to my jet lagged and weary guiri self underneath her thick Jaén pueblo accent. Shortly thereafter, her dog Lola had a little bathroom break at the bottom of the stairs, which of course I slipped on and nearly avoided a trip to the hospital by grabbing onto the railing for dear life.

I’d be lying if I told you that incident didn’t spur at least a few tears.

While I’ve got a bit over one month left living in this city, I feel a certain sense of sadness creeping in, as one does when approaching the end of an era.

When I left the north of Spain three years ago on a characteristically rainy morning, I felt as if I was leaving a part of me behind. With it’s temperamental climate, the rolling green hills, hearty people, the food, and overall salt of the earthed-ness (if that’s a word) I felt a bit more en casa up there. My surroundings just seemed to vibe a bit more with my New England blood.

bianca rooftop.JPG

However, while challenging, I’m living proof that is not impossible for a Yankee to warm up to the southern way of life.

Home to the Sierra de Cazorla, the largest protected area in Spain, quaint towns, miles of hiking trails, free tapas, and a cathedral that definitely ranks among my top five ever (I’ve seen a lot, so that’s saying something), Jaén is untouched Andalucía at its best. It might pale in comparison to the surrounding regional capitals and is pretty much devoid of postureo andaluz, but that’s all part of its magic.

Cazorla views

While at first I felt a bit suffocated without the ocean a stone’s throw away, I’ve come to appreciate Jaén’s “sea” – of olive trees, that is. Just like the ocean, there’s a untamed, yet insular and protective quality to their endless expanse across the province. The same inkling of insignificance – that we might as well be living on a dust speck a la Horton Hears a Who – I get when sitting on the ocean’s edge creeps in when passing through fields upon fields of olivos. 

Here I’ve been told I walk too fast, as if I’m always in a hurry to get somewhere. Now, that’s in my DNA, but I have found beauty in slowing down in other ways. In Jaén, and Andalucía overall, there is a paradox between the relaxed pace of life (or painfully slow, if you’re trying to get something done), and the hurried, fiery form of speaking. It’s often said that los andaluces se comen las palabras (literally, they eat their words). That is not untrue, but with some effort I’ve come to understand their accent, even allowing it to spill over into my own speech with throaty j’s and dropped s’s. Si, se me ha pegao…

The town of Alcaudete as seen from the Via Verde, a trail that retraces the old railroad that used to carry olive oil across Andalusia.

Along with the accent, I’ve also picked up some jiennense habits. Most notably, I put olive oil on everything now. I’m sure when I head home for a couple months this summer I’ll lament over the pale, watered down excuse we have for liquid gold.

It seems that just as I was told, I’ve let Jaén seep into my being and leave its mark. It’s a strange feeling, realizing that a place I never knew existed has become a part of me. Through the struggles, the frustrations, the laughter and the tears, Jaén was the place that taught me I can find a home anywhere, and just like everywhere else I’ve lived, I’ll probably miss it some day.

via verde
Who knew southern Spain could be so green?

In mid-June I’ll pack my bags, travel a bit, then head home for a short spell before beginning the next school year in another part of Spain. Time will tell if the refrain rings true and I cry my eyes out, but I think I’ve made some space in my heart for this little city.




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