1977 and 1978 were good years to be living in Spain. El Caudillo, Francisco Franco, had died in November of 1975, and the country was intoxicated with its newly acquired freedoms. A new newspaper, El País, had been born in Madrid, and intrepid young writers like Rosa Montero were scandalizing the country.
Montero, criticizing the absence of vitality in Spanish letters, asked in one of her columns whether a country was ignorant because it was Catholic or Catholic because it was ignorant.
Almost two decades before the cloying foolishness of Almodovar, serious filmmakers like Juan Luis Berlanga and Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón were making seriously good movies about the Spanish Civil War, class struggle, the schisms between the old and new Spain, the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church, and the repression of sexuality.
Madrid wasn’t bad, but Salamanca was better. It was the home of one of Europe’s oldest universities — The University of Salamanca, founded in 1218; it had a Plaza Mayor that was said to be only equaled by Plaza San Marcos in Venice; it was cosmopolitan because of the University, and the excellent reputation of the Spanish that was spoken there; and it was a very young city. I felt at home in Salamanca before I had even gotten off the train.
In a short time, I had my own coterie of friends from all part of the earth. I avoided most Americans because I had not come to live in Spain to practice English, but had several American friends who were as serious about learning Spanish as I was, and with whom I spoke only Spanish. I had a lot of Spanish friends and lived with two students from the university: Jose Antonio who was studying literature, and Luis who was studying psychiatry.
In my family of friends, there were a lot of Luises — and two of us lived in the same apartment. When Jose Antonio, Luis, or I — also a Luis, answered the phone, if someone asked to speak to Luis, we would respond by asking, “Luis el Americano o Luis el Español? Eventually, I became Luisón, not because I was bigger, but because I was older. Luis el Español became Luisito.
Because we were mischievous and vindictive, Luisito and I began asking callers who wanted to speak to Jose Antonio, “Jose Antonio el Americano o Jose Antonio el Español?” even though there was only one, el Español.
The two other Luises in our group were Luis el Hablador, so named because he loved to talk; and Luis con barbas, our bearded Luis. Luis con barbas, who was Spanish, and Ricardo, who was American, were both medical students, and because Ricardo, like Jose Antonio, was one of my best friends, the three of us — Luis con barbas, Ricardo, and I, spent a lot of time together.
Many Americans, as well as other foreign students, came to Salamanca to study medicine. Getting accepted into the Facultad de Medicina was exponentially easier than getting into medical schools in the United States; and it was exponentially less expensive: a year of study at the University of Salamanca’s Medical School cost about three or four hundred dollars. The difficulty was surviving medical school.
Luis con barbas and Ricardo spent about 8 hours a day studying.
No hyperbole here. Both were “table captains” or leaders of small groups of aspiring doctors, an honor reserved for the best and brightest. Xana, the beautiful, charismatic, 16-year old girl from Portugal, was also in medical school as was Luisito. They all spent a lot of time poring over books and memorizing data like the names of the 26 bones in a human foot.
Jose Antonio studied at the Facultad de Artes y Letras — the school of arts and letters, which was enclosed within a wall upon which someone had written, “Si hubiera sido el aborto, no habría nacido Franco”: “If abortion had existed, Franco never would have been born.” Salamanca wasn’t like Madrid where roving bands of fascist youth would erase or paint over left wing graffiti and sometimes oblige people to raise their right arms in the fascist salute and sing the fascist anthem, “Cara al Sol.”
José also spent a lot of time with books.
All of the males in our group were madly in love with Xana who was almost a mythical figure. As mentioned before, she was sixteen years old, charismatic, ridiculously beautiful, and very self-possessed. Her mother had died when Xana was very young.
Her father, a high ranking minister in the Portuguese government, often obliged Xana to fill the role of his co-host for meetings and parties at their home. Xana spoke English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. She had spent the first few years of her life in France, and hadn’t learned Portuguese until she was five years old.
It was Ricardo who eventually won the competition for Xana, but Luis con barbas and I quickly found consolation. Luis, the brightest, best looking, most athletic, and most genial among us, wound up with a girlfriend who resembled the Spanish actress Angela Molina. And I wound up with one Veronique, a polylingual, athletic French student of dance. Athletic was good. I was running 10 kilometers everyday as well as doing fifty pushups, 50 sit-ups, and walking everywhere. Veronique easily kept up me, and in our daily races up the twenty flights of stairs to her apartment, I barely won. Perhaps Veronique let me barely win.
There was nothing embarrassing about walking down the street arm in arm with Veronique. She was beautiful. I wasn’t bad looking, so we were a good match. Veronique liked to invent little games while we were walking, like speeding up so I had to hustle to keep up, or slowing down so I too had to slow down. Once she did this in on one of the main streets in Madrid, where we were spending the weekend. I grew weary of the game, and when she slowed down, I didn’t, with the result that she was soon ten meters or so behind me. As she waited to cross the street, a group of young men who were standing on the corner began tossing her “piropos,” or suggestive compliments. Veronique didn’t like this at all, and rapidly accelerated until she had caught up with me and as she caught me she threw her arm around my waist and almost lifted me off the ground. The guys on the corner were impressed and gave us a loud ovation.
I don’t know how Ricardo, Luisito, and Luis con barbas found the energy to go out late at night after eight hours of studying and several hours of classes, but they did. We attended concerts at the university, movies by the aforementioned Berlanga and Gutiérrez Aragon, as well as Saura, Pilar Miro, and Luis Buñuel, and poetry readings; we danced at local discos, and we spent hours at bars, mostly the Mesón Cervantes, owned and operated by the Herrera brothers, Juan and Paco, bon vivants both, who often participated in our discussions about politics, film, music, photography, and literature.
One summer night, Ricardo, Luis con barbas, and I found ourselves women-less and unbridled. We were in the Mesón Cervantes in The Plaza Mayor talking and downing glasses of sangria that Paco and Juan refilled as quickly as we drank them.
We decided it was a great night to practice one of our favorite sports, frisbee, in front of Salamanca’s cathedrals. Salamanca has two adjacent cathedrals, the old Romanesque cathedral which was begun in the 12th century, and the newer Gothic/Baroque cathedral which was started in sixteenth century and finished in the eighteenth.
After stumbling around for a while because the damned Europeans have never developed a grid system for their cities and one must navigate from plaza to plaza, we somehow found the plaza of the cathedrals. It was quite late — maybe past midnight, and we seemed to be the only living beings in the plaza. Even the thieving squirrels had gone to bed.
It was warm, so we left our jackets on a bench. We began to throw around the frisbee, albeit somewhat erratically.
Three figures emerged from the surrounding shadows and approached us. They were three young gypsy men and they were carrying knives. They grabbed my jacket off the bench. It was a leather jacket worth several hundred dollars. Ricardo and I dared not move or say anything, but Luis con barbas confronted them and attempted to grab my jacket from the biggest one of the group who was holding it. He slashed at Luis, who with the grace of a bullfighter, evaded the blade.
“¡Coño, Luis, déjalo!” I shouted, “¡No merece la pena!” Essentially, “For fuck’s sake, Luis, let it go! It’s not worth it!” He stepped aside. The three men ran past him and off into the night. Apparently they were not eager for a fight with Luis.
We walked slowly back to the Plaza Mayor, less cheerful and less inebriated. We never told anyone what had happened, especially our girlfriends. We didn’t want them to find out what kind of “pendejos” they were going out with.