Nearing home one winter’s day on the last stretch of my morning run, I passed a woman I recognized from other mornings out. It’s usually at the beginning or end of my run that I see her, either overtaking her from behind or passing her from the opposite direction. She seems to be as regular a walker as I am a runner, and although I don’t see her every day I’m out, and don’t think about her unless I do, each encounter is like seeing something you hadn’t missed until it reappears, like the sun emerging from behind a cloud. “Ah, yes!” I thought. It was a cold and windy day, and a bit of warmth was reassuring.
I live on the Asturian coast, a stone’s throw from the ocean, and the terrain near my home is full of dips and crevices and gullies. Down in the bottoms beside the creeks and rivulets that empty into the sea, the ground is mossy and the air is at best damp and chill. On the coastal trail hugging the hillside, the breeze can be cutting. But on the exposed highway across the bluffs above, the gale on a windy wintry day is relentless, as it was that morning, first battering tall grasses stiff with frost, then knocking them flat. Here is where I see her. Stout of build, short hair tinted red, brown slacks of some stretch material, and jacket always the same peach-colored quilted affair, cinched at the waist and hardly seeming adequate against the cold. Usually wearing a headset and often talking to someone, she walks along briskly, swinging a walking stick with such spirit, it’s hard to imagine she needs it. Her voice is as lively as her step, and even in the midst of a conversation, she invariably yells out a hello, and I often wonder if that sudden loud greeting surprises whoever is on the other end. What’s happened? What’s going on? they must think.
On this particular morning, however, she was not talking. As I was coming from the opposite direction, she had warning enough of my approach to raise her arms in an expansive salute. “Contra viento y marea!” she exclaimed as I drew close.
“Against wind and tide” is the translation, but uncertain of what exactly is meant by the adage, I had no better answer than an appreciative laugh.
In Spanish, the sound for a laugh is written já já, but is pronounced the same as our English ha ha. Other sounds are not. A rooster crowing in Spanish is qui quiri qui. For Spaniards, a cat says mau. The whoosh of the wind in Spanish is a zas, silbido, zumbido, or soplido. This is no surprise: the animal and nature sounds are transcribed from their sources into language, an approximation, while the human laugh is already in our tongue and needs only be put into the appropriate letters to render it in written Spanish or English. Meaning my laugh was perfectly intelligible to the woman, just as her smile and good humor were to me, her words always loud enough to hear despite the wind.
Asturians are known for their high spirits and loud voices, and a willingness to engage seems true of the ones I encounter while running—the woman waiting for the bread van, another staking bean plants in the spring and pulling out the stakes in the fall, the man circling through his field in a tractor, a mother and daughter waiting at a bus stop, a fellow with his black Lab on the coastal path. The old farmer taking his single cow to a field, ambling by her side down the lane, not leading or driving but accompanying her, a hand on her shoulder. The retiree, too, who took up walking as a better option for keeping out of his wife’s way than sitting in a bar. “So!” he told me. “Here I am!” For the past 10 years, he’s been a presence on these roads and lanes, doffing his cap when he sees me. I nod or lift a hand to all these people or, if passing close enough, say hello. Only one glum old fellow, in a black beret, clumps along, inhospitable, a cold suspicious look on his face, not glancing up or smiling. His answer when he gives one is just a croak of a hello, as if he’s surprised I’m bothering. That’s okay. Running, you’re past so quickly that any dissonance is over almost before it’s noted. Only the weather can’t be outrun.
That morning, the wind was coming straight at me, a hand on my chest. I could barely advance, but with the wind at her back, the woman had come on, arms raised and stick aloft, as if on a divine errand. I was tempted to turn and follow, but home was just up the road. “Hasta luego!” I said as I skirted her, literally “until later,” the equivalent of “see you.”
Pushing on, I recalled some advice my mother gave me. “If you want to like somebody, do something nice for them,” she said.
If you want to like them? What do you mean? I asked. “Go all out,” she answered, telling me not what to do but how. In that spirit. I already liked the red-haired woman just fine, but I was ready to like her even better. I would try to be the first with words next time I saw her.
Two days later that happened. Emerging from under some trees on a path connecting the coastal trail to the highway, I looked ahead to check for cars before crossing and then looked over my shoulder, to make sure all was clear that way too, and 50 yards down the highway, there she was, her back to me. We’d missed by a minute.
I’d be home in another five. I pushed into the wind, not as strong as two days earlier, and not as cold. I loped on. Ahead, I saw another figure known to me: that grim old man, stick in hand, clumping along, leaning into the wind.
He was wearing the blue cotton trousers workmen favor. I’d never seen him in anything but those trousers and his zippered blue work jacket. Unlike the woman, who manages to be alert in two worlds, he needed to be roused from his world to even register me on the road beside him. He’d never said hello first, and the effort of a response seemed to put him off. I’d long since given up on the greetings and would just as soon not encounter him. But there he was.
On drawing closer, I realized he had a different coat, a bulky parka with an ill-fitting hood that had blown back. His hair was white. How diminished he seemed under the parka, how bent his back, how thin his legs. Time is doing him no favors. “Contra viento y marea,” I said to myself, seeing him lurch.
Then, abreast of him, I yelled out: “Contra viento y marea!”
He gave a start. He answered. But what? The wind surged and took his words. I didn’t catch even one. That’s okay. Maybe that’s best.