A Journalist's Archive

Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca?
Alan Parks
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Who hasn’t dreamed about escaping the rat race by moving to a more relaxing environment and beginning a new career? However, few of us get past the fantasy stage to actually accomplish that goal. But “Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca?,” by Alan Parks, does allow us to live vicariously through two people who did.
          When Parks and his partner, Lorna, moved from Brighton, England to the Andalucía region in Spain, they jumped headfirst into their dream without checking the depth of the water. Neither spoke Spanish, they knew little about the climate, and even less about the alpacas they intended to breed in order to make a living. In fact, this memoir may be a primer for “what-not-to-do” if your plans include moving to a foreign country. Now, having said that, their “mistakes” didn’t stop them from achieving peace and tranquility in their new home. In addition, Parks’ honesty about their blunders is downright refreshing.
          In 2008, health issues made it impossible for Lorna to continue running the dance studio she owned in Brighton. At the same time, Parks felt he was in a rut and needed to try something totally different. Remembering their first encounter with an alpaca at a zoo in Prague, he attempted to learn more about the animals. His internet research claimed that raising alpacas was “quite a profitable business.” He was particularly impressed by a British couple’s website. Peter and Penny owned a herd of alpacas in Spain. They reported the animals were susceptible to few diseases and extremely easy to breed. Mistake number one: never trust internet testimonials from people trying to sell a particular product or animal.
          Lorna needed a milder climate, but also wanted to be close enough to home to visit her adult children. Spain fulfilled both those requirements, with warm weather and inexpensive flights between the countries . It’s a favorite destination for many British expats for those exact same reasons. But unlike most of their fellow countrymen, Parks and his mate didn’t want to live in a “British” subdivision. These gated communities can be found wherever  throngs of Brits relocate; ensconced with their own kind, the amenities offered include: Fish and Chips shops, English newspapers, cricket matches, and little interaction with the local inhabitants.
          Determined to break that pattern, Parks set out on a house hunting expedition only to encounter real estate agents who wouldn’t take his desires seriously. Persevering, he found a recently converted olive mill, near the village of Montoro. Surrounded by mountains and olive trees, the property offered the acreage and remoteness they wanted, and came with the added bonus of an off-the-grid existence.
          Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Yes, until the spring-fed well stopped supplying water, and the cloudy winter weather turned the solar panels into useless roof ornaments. While a wood-burning fireplace did provide heat, reading by candle light or kerosene lamps isn’t all that blissful. And nothing but long siestas gave them any relief during the scorching-hot summers.
          Not speaking the language became a major impediment when the couple wanted to purchase a car or make home improvements. That’s when they made their next misstep, relying on fellow English-speaking inhabitants who lived hours away from them. Parks writes, “Just because someone speaks the same language as you, doesn’t mean they are trustworthy.” When their financial interactions with the expats are compared to those with the locals, it clearly demonstrates the truth behind his statement.
          Live and learn! With time the couple learned a few basic Spanish words; combining those with a lot of hand signals, they learned to communicate with the natives. Read how Miguel, their nearest neighbor, helped them transition to the Spanish way of life. He’s an example of the quintessential “good neighbor.” Not only could they rely on him in times of trouble, his family invited them to parties and festivals, playing a pivotal role in their immersion into Spanish culture. Without Miguel’s help, there’s little doubt they would have headed back home – pronto!
          Because of their lack of experience, the alpaca business got off to a slow start. Skin diseases and a high infant mortality rate were part of the information Peter and Penny’s website neglected to mention. Manuel, the nearest veterinarian, had no experience with alpacas but he studied up and pitched in to help, learning right alongside of the couple. After four years, their herd grew to nine alpacas, not nearly enough for a profitable business. Still, they held on, finding happiness in their new environment, in spite of what many of us would view as insurmountable obstacles.
          Although this is non-fiction, Parks peppers the book with amusing short passages attributed to animals in their growing menagerie. Geri, the family’s pet dog from England, must quickly make room for a number of feral cats and Mary-Belle, a potbelly pig. Four more dogs find their way into the couple’s home, along with eight chickens that produce a steady supply of eggs.
          As most expats will tell you, there are usually some aspects of a different culture they find hard to accept. Discover which one Parks and Loran find intolerable. Learn what form of technology they just “can’t live without.” Then read how all their mistakes became minor inconveniences, overshadowed by the benefits of a beautiful landscape and a less stressful existence.
          Parks’ writing style starts off shaky, but greatly improves as the book progresses. The title for this memoir comes from the question Loran’s adult daughter asked when informed of her mother’s plan. “Seriously Mum, What’s an Alpaca?” is Parks’ first book; he has since published two more in what is known as his “Seriously Mum” series.
          Driven by necessity, dreams have a way of morphing. While their alpaca business may never be profitable, Parks’ new writing career might just provide the financial security needed for the couple to continue living their dream.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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