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Fly Culture

Story ID:7914
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Local Legend
Writers Conference:My Favorite Holiday Story
Location:Gerona Spain
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Fly Culture

Like many local ex-pats, I came to Mexico from the United States of America. Naturally, I noticed many things that were very different. I tend to notice differences in unusual things.

I have been fortunate in that my travels have included most of the globe and I have noticed that the ubiquitous fly is an excellent reflection of the local culture. For instance: whereas in the US the flies are scared, respectful, careful and quick to dash away as they are not tolerated at all, in Mexico the flies are quite bold, voracious, casual and secure in their right to exist.

In Mexico the old saying: “You catch more flies with honey than garlic,” is completely invalid. Try ordering something smothered in Garlic at a restaurant and watch your table guests increase exponentially when the dish is served. In Mexico, flies love garlic and, since this is such a “live and let live” society, when you swat at them to make them get off your food, they have a kind of bemused attitude and look at you as if to say: “Si, ola Gringo, I see you waving, how many times are you going to wave at me? By the way this is delicious Huachinango - good choice hombre!”

The boldness of the Mexican fly is different from that of the flies of Western Australia. Their boldness is caused by overwhelming numbers and a desperate need for water. As you walk into the Western Australian Desert you are assailed by literally thousand of the little bastards and they all try to get into your ears, nose, mouth and eyes, - anywhere there might be some moisture. The Australians wear hats with corks attached to the brims to wave off the flies. When I was there I just broke off a leafy branch and waved that in front of my face. Unfortunately these ploys don’t work for long as the Australian fly is quite intelligent and after a while it ignores anything you wave at it and continues feasting on the moisture from your face. I ended up just hitting myself in the face with my branch to get relief from the flies. In fact: Western Australia is the only place on earth where you can walk around hitting yourself in the face with a branch and they won’t put you in a rubber room.

This past summer I had occasion to fly to Europe. I wanted to pass through Barcelona from Rome on my way to London and to save some money I went with “Ryan Air.” This airline is famous for cheap, bare-bones transportation. Founded and run by a shrewd Irishman called Tony Ryan, this airline boasts insanely cheap seats for flights around Europe, some as low as ten dollars. The catches are: you are allowed only one bag with 15 kilograms of weight, (I have given away clothes at the airport), there is no food or drink unless you buy it on board and it is exorbitantly costly and you don’t fly to your desired destination, but to a small town nearby. Ryan saves on airport fees by making deals with small airports which are not too far from the major cities. So when you fly to “Barcelona” Ryan air flies you to Gerona and you can get a train or a bus to Barcelona, which is about one and a half hours away.

This is how I ended up in the pretty little town of Gerona on my way to London. I had planned to spend a full day in Barcelona, but since I had been there many times, I decided to pass the time in Gerona, which was a brand new experience.

Upon arrival I noticed that the airport had a lot of flies buzzing around. I thought there must be a feed-lot nearby and started employing an old boarding-school game of catching the flies and slamming them onto the ground to kill them.
I had used this trick to great effect when in Charles De Gaul airport; a man had helped me get to the head of a long line and then demanded twenty Euro. I gave him five and he was rather upset by that until I saw a large fly on a computer screen, snatched it and slammed it to the ground. At that point the man decided that perhaps five Euro was indeed a generous donation after all and that it might be a good time to assist a new traveler.

As I was catching and slamming in Gerona airport, I noticed several odd looks I got from other travelers. Paying little attention I made my way to the nearest hotel. When I arrived, I noticed that the hotel had quite a large number of flies buzzing around the reception area, as well as in the small attached restaurant and business center. As I continued my game of catching and slamming, I began to notice raised eyebrows and distasteful looks on the faces of the hotel staff and other local Spaniards. I assumed it was because I was handling flies and this was considered unsanitary.

Later, in my room, I started to read through some of the tourist brochures and came upon some historical information about Gerona. Apparently, in the year 1285 Gerona was caught in the Aragonian Crusade. Peter the Great was fighting to preserve his throne, threatened by the French army led by Philip the Bold.

The French soldiers marched into Gerona, boldly, and headed for the collegiate of Saint Felix, in which lay the body of the city's patron saint, St. Narcissus. They opened the sarcophagus and, miraculously, a large crowd of flies emerged. According to the graphic description of Bernat Desclot, a monk from Ripoll who recorded this event in 1288, “the flies entered the nostrils and the anuses of the horses, which drove them so crazy that they fainted and fell.” The record does not mention the orifices of the French soldier the flies entered, but the casualty list was calculated as up to 4,000 horses and 20,000 Frenchmen. Miraculously, the flies found that the French exuded the exact sort of aroma they found irresistible – go figure.

Philip the Not-so-Bold-Anymore had to retreat. A carpenter, devastated by the sight of the exposed body of the saint, volunteered to build a box to house the remains of the body. The next day, another swarm of flies emerged from this box and headed for the French army camp outside the city and bit ferociously both animals and humans of French origin. The French were beaten.

Both Peter the Great and Philip the Damn-I-Wish-I’d-Been-Bolder died shortly after this prodigious event, roughly within a month of each other boasting a score of nil - nil.

However, this was not the only occurrence. The next time was in 1653. After more than 500 years, the memory of the fly defenders had faded. The French went for Gerona again. In a notarized document signed by French officers, they told of blue and green flies that miraculously came out from the sepulcher of the saint and attacked the French. Once again, Gerona was saved by the holy fly cavaliers and, for lack of deodorant and adequate personal hygiene, Gerona remained a Spanish possession.

Flies emerging from the sarcophagus of a dead person didn’t seem all that miraculous to me and nor did the fact that they found the French soldiers attractive, but the locals still see the flies as holy saviors and here I was catching them and slamming them to the ground! I’m not sure but I may be on a “No-Fly” list in Gerona.