My Spanish Past

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The first time I went to Granada was in the spring of 1976 when I was young and naive. I was living and working in Pau in the French Pyrenees and had befriended a woman called Anne Marie who ran a hikers’ refuge in the mountains in the summer months. She suggested we go on a hitchhiking holiday to Spain. After the repressive era of the dictator Franco, young women – and foreigners in particular – were easy prey so Anne Marie insisted we wear obstentious signs of religion so that the men would leave us alone. I had a large coloured ceramic cross! It worked. We were never bothered.

Seville during orange season

Seville during orange season

It was a whirlwind trip. Anne Marie had omitted to inform me of two major details: she had no money and she had a rendezvous with her Spanish lover in Sarragossa at the end of the trip, which was a surprise to me because first, she was married and I knew her husband, and second, she was not my idea of a femme fatale.

When she came to collect me, she proceeded to empty half my backpack, which meant that I had only the barest of creature comforts. It was not until a year or so later that someone pointed out to me that my superduper backpack contained a small rubber mattress.

Anne Marie was used to sleeping on the ground when mountain-hiking but it was a rude  shock when I had to sleep on hard concrete in a sleeping bag for the first time in my life. I know that we went to Seville, Granada and Cordoba but since I left my camera behind in the train to Madrid, I have nothing to jog my memory and my subsequent visits to Seville and Granada have contained no familiar places.

I don't remember our tapas being this sophisticated in 1976

I don’t remember our tapas being this sophisticated in 1976

We mainly ate bread and tapas which, at that time, were free. You just had to buy a drink to eat any of the little « lids » of olives, ham and cheese set out on the counter. I can remember being hungry. I would have been happy to buy food for both of us but Anne-Marie wouldn’t be any part of it and I had to eat what she ate.

From Cordoba, we were supposed to hitch-hike up the Sierra Nevada to Madrid but rides were scarce so we ended up taking the train on the last stretch, then another train in the direction of Saragossa. By the time we arrived in some little town I can’t remember it was close to midnight and Anne-Marie managed to find a double bed in someone’s home that sank badly in the middle. Only mildly better than hard concrete.

The next morning we hitch-hiked the rest of the way to Saragossa and arrived late for the rendezvous with the Spanish lover on the steps of the Cathedral. We waited about an hour before we finally left with Anne-Marie in tears. About ten minutes later, she decided to go back to the cathedral steps and there he was, waiting for her!

We drove out of town to a forest in his Mini and I waited in the car and dosed while they went off into the forest. How I/we got back to Pau I don’t remember. It’s a long time ago, but I didn’t ever go on holiday with her again!

My next trip to Spain was a couple of years later when I did a two-week language course in Salamanca while studying translation at ESIT. This time, I hitch-hiked by myself down to San Sebastian just over the French border then took the train the rest of the way. I boarded with a family in their small apartment. I was still not used to people with children actually living in anything other than a house and my day-to-day Spanish was virtually non-existent.  It was a strange experience. I also only  knew the third person of verbs so would have to say things like “she’s going out now – me”.

One day the landlady asked if I had any ropa. When I couldn’t work out what she meant, she called in the other boarder, a German girl to explain that she wanted to wash my clothes. After that, everyone assumed that I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and they wouldn’t actually believe that I had understood a whole conversation about the stock exchange (la bolsa). I knew a lot of financial and technical vocabulary from ESIT but we had never done any texts on washing clothes.

It was the same occasion on which I went to visit Avila, home of Saint Teresa of Avila and saw her little finger. It put me off relics for a lifetime! Don’t worry – I don’t have a photo of that either!

Sunset over the Alhambra in Granada

Sunset over the Alhambra in Granada

I have retained a surprising amount of vocabulary but have never actually learnt to speak or understand the language with any ease. But when we travel, I get by especially if I practise what I want to say beforehand but I’m often discouraged. I have less formal learning in Italian and can understand (and speak) a lot better.

I’m not sure I’ll ever need Spanish again though, because I think we have exhausted our possibilities here. Next time, we’ll go back to Italy for the sun!

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13 Responses to My Spanish Past

  1. Oh gosh yes, my first time in Spain was a little later, 1979, and it was a bit grim even under much less austere circumstances – by train in fact. Any romantic illusions gained from an over-enthusiastic diet of bohemian travellers of an earlier era were pretty much dispelled right at the French border with its surly guards and the decanting onto a train which did not measure up to French standards. It positively crawled to Burgos, hours and hours and packed with Spaniards not all of whose manners reached French standards either. In Burgos, once the glory of Castille, there was nothing to eat, we went to bed hungry and next morning, ravenous, got nothing more than two marie biscuits each and something resembling coffee. All my Portuguese companion’s inherent antipathies to the national neighbour arose and took florid form, involving at one stage the drawing the knives from boots. The famous cathedral was thick with dust, ancient spider-webs and disgusting representations of tortured saints with what appeared to be genuine rubies for blood. Nothing improved during the continuing long haul all the way across, three days I think. Salamanca was a semi-ruin with cows sleeping in the plaza maior. After the dusty plain to reach green Portugal with real coffee and – in those days – an astonishing variety of cakes in any café was like entering paradise. Four years later I’d just about plucked up the nerve to try again, this time by car along the northern coast, which was marginally better except that getting anything to eat other than a couple of bits of octopus tentacle with a handful of olives washed down with very strong liquor remained a serious problem; the same companion again drew Spanish wrath by pronouncing their bread to be “nothing more than sand”. Then strangely, and very quickly, Spain underwent some sort of transformation. Over the next ten years and various excursions over quite a lot of it I began to realise how beautiful and fascinating it was – at the cost, perhaps, of a diminution of the ‘romance’. By the mid-nineties Salamanca bore no resemblance to what I remembered, The last time, what, four years or so ago, around Cadiz, it was much the same as everywhere else and the wasp-waisted brigand seemed to have vanished too. They’d all got fat and comfortable and the tapas, yes, had become “sophisticated”.

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Well, Stephen, what a story! When I saw the Plaza Major in Salamanca, it was full of people doing the paseo, no cows. It must have been in April 1979. However, the thing that surprised me most was an ordinary house with a line of men outside on a Sunday afternoon. I was told it was a brothel!
      The coaches are extremely efficient these days, unlike the trains!

  2. What a crazy story! It made me laugh…

    Despite our (relative) proximity to Spain, I never really go there, except for a few work-related trips to Barcelona. Some of the areas tempt me, but then again so do many other places in Europe…

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      I’m not surprised – I don’t think you’re missing much although I really loved Seville a few years ago and Barcelona. I also enjoyed San Sebastian despite the rain that day.

  3. I find the relic notion to be a rather bizarre one myself. There’s a Catholic church here that has the body of a woman, preserved in some kind of wax, behind a glass wall.

    • Melodie K. says:

      My first time in Spain came just three years after yours, Rosemary ~ in 1979. Spent most of that stay in central Spain where I fell in love with Madrid and Salamanca, both great university towns. I missed seeing the sleeping cows in Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor that Stephen mentioned in his comment earlier here. (THAT would have been a photo to take.) What I do remember? Night and day always something to do, someone new to meet, and as you say, free tapas with your beverage. The most humble, if memory serves, was that dish of olives with the inexpensive . . . okay, cheap house wine.

      • Rosemary Kneipp says:

        No, I didn’t see the sleeping cows but I did see a brothel (see my answer to Stephen). Actually, we found the wine quite good and we didn’t go for the more expensive variety.

        • Melodie K. says:

          Oh, yes, I agree. The wine was always good. I had my first taste of tripe in España and THAT was good. That was just my way of being very plain about how truly inexpensive the cost of living was at that time. Nope ~ cannot imagine a better place to have lived as an adventurous student on a budget than wonderful Spain. Although Italy comes close!

          • Rosemary Kneipp says:

            I was given tripe as a child and I liked it but I went off it went I got older and realised what it was!

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      I agree that the whole relic thing is more than bizarre!

  4. Oh, the brothel was a standard Southern European institution, all nice boys were taken there by their papas at an early age. Did you ever see Marseilles before it was ‘sanitized’; or Paris come to that?

    • Rosemary Kneipp says:

      Marseilles is probably the only major French city where I have never set foot. It’s on the agenda though, but not for the brothels!

  5. You’ll be spared those Rosemary, they’ve taken even less savoury if less visible form. The best thing about Marseilles was the bouillabaisse straight from the sea, but I suppose that’s taken a sanitized form too…

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