October in Spain 2016

The leaves on the trees in Retiro Park in Madrid are turning burnt orange and brown, the umbrellas are in hand. Autumn is here and it is splendid.

The number 9 bus goes to the American Embassy, where I’ve been sent to get information about how to apply to stay in Spain longer than the three months ordinarily granted tourists. At the Embassy entrance on the big wide street, Calle Serrano, there are numerous police cars and armed guards, and directly across the street is a Catholic church. In 1973, members of the Basque separatist movement ETA dressed up in workmen’s clothes and managed to plant a bomb in front of the church and blow up the car of Carrero Blanco, the fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s hand-picked successor. Blanco attended mass faithfully at this church. The bomb was so strong it launched Blanco’s car over the top of the church and into the patio on the other side, where it was found with Blanco still sitting in it. My cousin was living in Madrid then and remembers that a Civil Guard officer came to her office with tears streaming down to inform them of the bombing. After he left they closed the office door and celebrated. After a 36-year reign Franco passed away in 1975, and Spain moved back to a democratic form of government.

Standing on the sidewalk across from the elegant church I thought about Spain today and how the government is fractionated in a similar way it was in 1936 when General Franco launched his prolonged coup that evolved into the Spanish Civil War. Now, a number of factions haven’t been able to compromise to form a legitimate government since the December 2015 elections, and a second national election this summer, which also didn’t produce a clear winner. The October 2nd edition of El Pais, the national daily, announces that 2 years and 3 months after being elected by the PSOE (the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, the opposition) as secretary general, Pedro Sanchez has stepped down; this after a 12- hour closed-door session during which yells and curses were exchanged, leaving the PSOE, the gleaner of the second-greatest number of votes in the two elections, in disarray. The former president, Mariano Rajoy of the conservative party PP, has continued on as the functioning president. The new circumstances open a window to a compromise that would avoid a third election that would take place near the end of December. Ten months without a legitimate government has left the Spanish electorate bored and impatient. Political analysts say lack of a legal government poses a risk to an economy that has just picked up after the recession, with housing prices rising and tourism booming. The infighting in the various parties is almost painful to watch on the daily news, and it’s complicated by a giant corruption scandal related to the PP, but not involving Mariano Rajoy himself. Nobody’s been willing to give in yet one more election might just put Spanish democracy over the cliff and still yield no clear majority. It’s a Spanish kind of thing.

A short while ago the Madrid government declared a “car-free Madrid” day. That day there were more cars on the road than any other day of the year. The Spaniards are a “don’t tell me what to do” people, and, while dislike of the communist mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, may have been part of the impetus for the display of non-cooperation, this individualism exists and makes political compromise here difficult. I was reminded once again of this trait when I’d find empty cigarette packages with ghastly images of the physical results of smoking, warnings in large print of the increased risk to health; one package shows a clouded over blind eye and informs that tobacco makes blindness more likely. But Spaniards in large numbers can be seen with ciggies between lips or fingers, and cigarette butts are ubiquitous, although smoking isn’t allowed inside cafes or pubs. On the other hand the meat has no hormones or antibiotics, the vegetables and fruits are fresh and grown close by and taste better than the generic types from our big stores. And are cheaper.

I spent a lot of October in a small pueblo north of Madrid called Navalagamella — generally called Nava because no one can, or wants to, pronounce it in full — with an approximate 2,000 population, one great bar, Pablo’s El Mirador on the plaza, the hub of the town, one great restaurant, Epili, good walking paths, and solid citizens, plus Carpi the old military man who spends his days and nights on the porch of El Mirador smoking and taking the pulse of the pueblo. There are lots of dogs and cats in Nava and traffic on foot and in vehicles, some driven fast and carelessly enough to make me careful crossing a road (on the TV news I heard that 120 people a month are run over in Madrid). Buses to and from Madrid are frequent and on time, so I was able to get around easily. In the interest of exploration, I took the bus to a town 7 kilometers to the west called Colmenar del Arroyo.

Colmenar has a different ambience than Nava does. It’s super clean, full of upper-middle class homes, and has a lovely city hall on the central plaza, and it’s more or less lifeless. The main street is Calle General Franco, and the town of fine houses seems proud of its past Falangist (pro-Franco) sympathy. The big stone Catholic church across from the plaza has on its front wall the five crossed arrows symbol of the Falangist party of the 1930’s; it’s a remembrance in honor of Jose Antonio Rivera, the Falangist founder who was assassinated in 1936. Below it, on the church front, is an engraved homage to the Francoists who fell in a local skirmish against the Republican government forces. Along the main street, on the building walls, are numerous poems painted in black script, some signed by the Accion Poetica of Colmenar. For the most part they consist of saccharine philosophy in short lines, such as the one on the butcher shop: “We are flesh(carne) and kisses.” On the square wall: “ La vida is bella, pero sin “b,” and on Franco Calle: “If you don’t achieve happiness reach for something higher.” No political sentiments anywhere. At the church the priest suddenly walked out, and in answer to a question of my cousin’s about the Falangist party still being in existence, answered that “they are a very minor party now.” I didn’t ask if he believed in the separation of church and state. When later I go into the city hall to get directions to the NASA Museum and Space Station close by, the clerk tells me, “I don’t know, it belongs to the next village over, Robledo.” One can see the big satellite dishes easily on the ride into Colmenar, so I find her answer less than satisfying. On the highest part of the church there’s a clock that’s been stuck for years at its present time of 10:10 in the AM. Perhaps since 1939?

Throughout Spain there remain tensions and faultlines between political factions that run through generations and are generated by the bitterness of the Civil War in the 1930’s. When Franco prevailed, he gave no amnesty, showed no mercy in doing away with Republican sympathizers after he won the war. I suspect this turned many a small town family against their neighbors, and engendered desires for revenge. I noticed in Nava people try to keep their political views private whenever possible.

The next Saturday we go to the NASA station, one of three stations like it in the world, the others being near Barstow, California, and Canberra, Australia, so that the signals from space satellites are uninterrupted as the earth turns. Inside, we watch a film about how the Rover Explorer was sent to Mars, including pictures it took of the Martian landscape and how precisely coordinated the landing was. The space travel paraphernalia and video exhibits are modest, as is the building. Seeming intentionally understated, the station is set in a clear-sky area where cows graze on the perimeter. There are small gold stars set in the entryway, with simulated moon footprints. In a convulsion of patriotic pride I purchase a NASA backpack for five dollars. NASA could do it, and did do it. On the ride back to Nava I thought about how the NASA Station and the nearby giant stone complex of El Escorial, which was begun by Spain’s King Phillip II in 1562, were both representative institutions symbolic of high modernity in their respective times, albeit 400 years apart. When King Phillip had his grand center of learning, research, government and religion constructed, he had a favorite rock on which he sat and watched the progress of the construction — it was a site from which he would have been able nowadays to see the hug,e marvelously complicated satellite dish of the space research station.

Back in Madrid, the two popular soccer teams, Real Madrid and Athletica Madrid, were playing first Germany and then Poland. The young German fans arrived for the one game and drank beer like … Germans. Then 3,000 young Polish soccer fans came and drank beer like Poles, and then rioted in the Spanish streets — and this was before the game was even played. As far as I could figure, this drinking and rowdyism is becoming a sort of custom among soccer fans in Europe. Nowadays customs travel with internet speed. Our 1960’s- originated, now revived style of wearing jeans with ripped out knees is now common among youth in Madrid. It surprised me, as dress and style are more formal here among older folks, in contrast to our shorts and running shoes in California. Tattoos are seen; boots for women are common dress. But Spaniards still eat their hamburgers with a knife and fork-- the waiter at my favorite Madrid restaurant Panxion does seem to look curiously at the American raccoon who orders all the hamburgers. Although all the available surfaces along highways and in certain parts of Madrid are filled with graffiti, just like that in San Francisco’s Mission district, I saw none of those sissy little vaping devices in Spain, where men and women sneer at the idea of black lungs and scarred livers.

Since it is grape harvest time in Spain (there is wine tourism, but it costs), I go with the flow, eating and drinking grapes, especially on the last week of rainy October weather in Nava, where dos riojas and conversation is a respectable autumnal pastime, and one is not hurried at one’s goblet. Yet there are rules too.

I’m served my wine; and my cousin puts her hand on the cold glass.

“In order to taste good, red wine must be served warm.”

She apparently thinks I should get my glass heated.

“Tastes quite fine to me. It’s the quality of the wine, it has nothing to do with the temperature.”

“For god’s sake, Penny. It does. Ask an expert.”

So I’m asking, I say, and sip on at the grape. In my twenties, I was weaned on the California Red Mountain, my Southern drinking companion maintaining often, “Ah drink for effect, not for the taste.”

Now, back in Frisco for some days, I think of sitting at Pablo’s having a café con leche with Roberto, Mari-Carmen, Pilar, and my cousin, of Vivienda the waitress, who spent her hard-earned ninety euros to get one of the plaza’s stray cats neutered. Of Pablo’s brandy, made in the city of Jerez where all the fine sherries are made. Of winding narrow streets. And of the rain hanging from the upper fingers of the Lebanese Cedar outside the bedroom window.

And I’m satisfied that Spain will have a legal head of government with the investiture of Mariano Rajoy, going on today as I finish writing; even though he may not have a strong hand, there will be other elections, and hopefully Spain will sort out its points of conflict.

(Copyright©Penny Skillman 2016)

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