“What Can I Do?” Plenty. Be Creative.
“Salobreña inspired me,” says Helen McCormack, who came here to retire and promptly made herself an essential player in the cultural life of the pueblo. Recognition came quickly to this gently dynamic Irish woman from County Kildare.
¡Alegria! staff–In November 2012, just five years after arriving, she was invited by the Salobreña town hall to present the pregón (welcoming speech) to the town’s principal annual fiesta, honoring the Vírgen del Rosario, the town’s patron saint. To be named pregonero is an honor reserved for people who are well-loved and respected and who have made significant contributions to the life of the town.
“After arriving here and getting settled in—which included buying a piece of land and having a house built on it—I found I wanted to do something,” says Helen. “I liked everything about Salobreña,” she adds. “I liked the seashore and the countryside around the town, the rock it was built on and the shape of the castle on top. The first time I walked up there I was taken by its wonderful views down to the seashore and the green floodplains that reach the beach and the countryside stretching to the Güájar Mountains, the Alpujarras and the Sierra Nevada peaks touching the blue skies in the distance. Although the castle has shed a lot of its former glory, it was so evocative that I felt it needed something beautiful to happen up there.” Eventually something beautiful is happening, thanks largely to Helen.
“I particularly liked Salobreña’s authentic Andalusian village atmosphere. It reminded me of growing up in the Irish countryside. People care about one another, look after each other and are proud of their unique little town. Another thing that struck me here was the low profile of the foreign residents. The town has no bar exclusively for foreigners. Unlike many places on the Spanish costas, here they all mix in. As for me, after living here for many years, I cannot imagine living elsewhere. Spain is my adopted country and I feel entirely at home with the Spanish lifestyle in Salobreña.”
It Takes Work to Convert Potential into Reality
One of Helen’s first reactions to Salobreña was one of frustration. “I arrived here with a foreigner’s awareness of a potential that’s not being used,” she says. “I felt there might be a more creative, productive and ecological use of this lovely town’s tourism potential. The castle itself is an inspiration, its monumental links with the past, its powerful visual appeal, its old stones and weathered forms. It hurts me to see its full potential not being realized.”
Helen’s first contact with the people here was with Concha, the woman who had converted her family’s rickety old noble home into a charity shop to earn money for the banco de alimentos (food bank) for Granada’s poor. “This was one of those experiences that turns out to be so much more rewarding than one expects,” says Helen. “Carmen was so generous, so welcoming and so appreciative of the help I was able to give her interpreting for foreign customers that I found myself going down there every morning. We had so much fun. ”
In 2010, with the blessing of the Town Hall and International Club of Salobreña, Helen established a flea market in the Parque de la Fuente, the EcoRastro on the first Saturday of each month. “It has become a popular social and commercial event,” says Helen. “It’s also a showcase for crafts people, who deserve to be valued and encouraged. It’s still going on. The proceeds go to Salobreña projects. So far we’ve supplied the children’s park with more equipment, benches and a pergola.”
The SaloArte Experience
Helen feels—and everybody agrees—that her best initiative was the weekend art exhibit she organized last summer, under the auspices of the Salobreña International Club of which she was president at the time. “We called it SaloArte. It was a halting first step in my dream to revitalize the castle,” says Helen, “and everything that could go wrong did go wrong, including an unscheduled fireworks display when one of the outdoor electrical boxes started spewing out smoke and sparks. We had, it seems, overloaded the electrical installation.
“Even so,” adds Helen, “people enjoyed themselves and the artists sold some of their work. Best of all, SaloArte shows how ‘foreigners’ become ‘neighbors,’ sharing the goals of the local people and the administration to advance the interests of Salobreña: to recognize that cultural tourism is the most ecological way forward to preserve the best of the town and improve its economy.” Who benefits from a cultural event like SaloArte. “In my view everybody benefits,” says Helen, “from the artists and visitors to the townspeople and tradesmen. Ultimately the principal beneficiary is the town. With luck we’ll put Salobreña permanently on the Andalusian cultural and touristic map. Will we achieve international recognition? That remains to be seen.”
Helen had a stroke of luck with SaloArte from the outset. She wrote a letter to D. Federico Mayor Zaragoza inviting him
to present the show on its opening night, and was delighted with his prompt affirmative reply. Don Federico, a former Director General of UNESCO, worldwide eminence in several fields and a published poet, has a house near Salobreña from his days as rector of the University of Granada, and he spends most of his summers there with his family
According to Helen, Mayor Zaragoza has two overriding concerns in his life: culture in all of its manifestations and world peace. He was instrumental in the founding of UNESCO’s Foundation for a Culture of Peace, dedicated to the promotion of “a culture of peace, human rights, non-violence, tolerance and dialogue among civilizations.” Mayor Zaragoza’s ideas have been influential in Helen’s thinking, so much so that the second edition of SaloArte, in August of 2013 may well include a peace initiative.
Competence and Compassion Are Both Born of Experience
Helen’s curriculum includes university in Dublin (social sciences) and jobs in the theater festival and social work in a hospital there; a year’s volunteer work at the Ecole de Bonneuil in France working with autistic young people; five years of psychotherapy training at the Arbours Association London; a stint in the education department at Pentonville prison in North London; and private practice as a therapist in London and later in Galicia, by that time in Spain with her partner and young daughter.
One of her jobs deserves a closer look, as it sheds light on Helen’s irrepressible character. In Madrid in the spring of 1974 she showed up at an audition for two jobs (male and female) as presenters for sales-training films for the Corte Inglés department-store chain. “They needed native English speakers to role-play sales persons’ jobs so their staffs could learn to attend customers in English,” says Helen.
When she arrived she was dismayed to see the queue of applicants snaking through the corridors and up the stairs. “There must have been more than a hundred people. Worst of all, the woman ahead of me was a professional actress with all the right moves. It was depressing to watch her go through her warm-up routine. Compared to her I had no experience at all. Clearly, I was out of the running.”
Helen finally got her chance to audition in front of the camera. Someone opened the studio door, she stepped inside, tripped over a cable and went hurtling across the stage in front of the camera crew. She managed to regain her balance but she couldn’t stop laughing.
Helen got the job.