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June 30, 2013

Great Spanish Inventions 2: The Chupa Chups

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I bet you thought it was going to happen.  I bet you thought I was going to let it happen.  Yeah, right!

     Go an entire month without posting a single…well…post?  That’s how shaky things have been.  They can sake, as long as they don’t topple.

     It almost happened, but just like paying taxes on the final day, which happens to be tomorrow and I’ll tell you about that later, I am down to the wire, but in time.  But in time.  But in time.

     Oh, I haven’t forgotten.

     Now, this was what I was going to say.  Yet again, in the 20th Century,Spainwould shake the very foundations of the scientific and technological  world with and bequeath to modern society an invention so profound that its effects are still being felt by me today. Literally.

            It’s the Chupa Chups, the Spanish version of the lollipop, and I just happened to have one in my mouth as we speak.  That’s how recent its reverberations can be felt.  It’s a cherry-flavored one and it’s been pretty good for the first thirty seconds, but now I am getting a little tired of it and wish do away with it elegantly like tossing it over the balcony.

       I even took a picture of it seconds before its execution.  Its death.  I placed it on a nice bare background for minimalist effect and artistic simplicity representing the futility of life as a sucker.

       The Chupa Chups is almost round like a globe, though it has a thicker band protruding around its equator.  You’ll have to excuse the imagery.  This product makes up the second tine of the great trident of Spanish inventions that I have heard about so many times throughout my life here.  The others are the modern submarine and the mop and bucket, if you haven’t been following this fascinating series.

            When I first heard this bit of trivia, I expressed my admiration out of kindness and politeness, because it was quaint, and because anyone who openly claims with pride that their country boldly ventured where no candy maker had before, or so they say, certainly garners my praise.

       I say that’s sweet, no pun intended, and move on. Then after hearing it for the tenth time, I begin to wonder just what kind of information is meted out in those social studies classes, because it’s nice to know that the Chupa Chups has its origins in the Iberian Peninsula, it’s another thing that it should earn such an honored spot in the kingdom of technological advancement.  It’s a fine contribution to society, especially for those in the dental service sector, but no more so than thousands of others.  Robert Kearn ofDetroit,Michigan, invented the intermittent windshield wiper back in1963, aprodigious creation from a driver’s point-of-view, and yet most Americans do not know this, just like they are about the vast majority of human ingenuity.

            But there you have it, a world where even the simplest things can share the limelight.

            As to be expected, the ubiquitous lollipop did not see earthly light for the first time in Iberian lands.  And, as to be expected, it is nearly impossible to determine just where it did.

            The modern version of the lollipop has been attributed to a man named George Smith, who owned a candy company inNew Haven,Connecticut, my homestate.  That really is a blow to the Spanish.  By the way, New Haven also is said to be the birthplace of the hamburger, not dreamed up by some kooky-looking clown, so it should be noted that this otherwise discreet coastal city on the East Coast of the United States noted otherwise for its fine university, Yale, has also been one of the most fertile creators of modern pop gastronomy.

            Chances are, though, the lollipop had been invented decades, if not centuries, before as its concept, eating without getting your hands all dirty, is hardly a novel one.  Haven’t you ever seen those Middle Ages movies with the Vikings plunging their swords into chunks of the roasted meat the size of footballs?

            It was apparently this issue that prompted our Spanish hero, Enric Bernat, to come up with a similar answer to the age-old issue of what to do about the children tackling with sticky food.  He had witnessed a mother scolding her child for getting his hands all messy after a bout with some sweets.  For the most part, this has always been a debatable motive for telling your kid off, because most candy is simply not designed with a kid’s mind in mind. They kind of assume the little one will handle the goodie responsibly, which is really asking a lot of any tot.  So, the kid is given free reign to behave under the toughest of circumstances and gets told off to boot.

            To resolve this problem.  Bernant devised a candy which kept the child’s hands away from the cause of all the stress.  Then he took his newfangled treat to stores all over the country requesting that it be placed on the counter right next to the register and, yes, within reach of a child.  This was a major breakthrough in marketing.

            The campaign paid off, and Bernant’s idea quickly became a hit and sales rocketed.  One source says that the annual production is about 12 million per year, which comes in at about 33,000 lollipops a day.  You would think that it would cover costs, but apparently not.  The company closed down a big plant inAsturiasin 2011 and there is only one left in the country.  These things out to be protected by the national heritage board.

Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

May 1, 2013

25 Years in Spain: Early Morning and the Birth of a Nation

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Then there was light.  Not much, but light all the same.  Any universe can start that way.  Mine was daily.

When I first came toSpain, I treated electricity with the same degree of carelessness that I held regard for when it came to any kind of utility.  In fact, “utility” was the ideal word for the service.  No frills, just a jolt of energy or a rush of water to keep things running in the household.  Like any young American back in the 80s who had barely been exposed to the efforts of mainstream ecology, energy conservation was for geeks and Californians and not to be taken too seriously…just like geeks and Californians. Saving the Earth’s natural resources was lame, and if you had to do it, the last thing you were going to do is tell someone about it.

            My disregard for cutting back on consumption rattled the Post-Civil War Spanish generation.  My host-family mother shadowed me around the house clicking off all those switches I would leave on when I departed from the room.

       And in the morning, during the winter inMadridthe house would remain dark until nearly eight in the morning, only a brushstroke of light might erupt from the kitchen or bathroom and cast some way of finding my bearings in the hall.  Back home, my brother is capable of draining national resources with just a casual flip of the switch, but here, every watt counts.  Especially back then.

            The reason behind this was that utilities for so long were pricey as the economy tried to pull itself out of the wake of a terrible civil war and decades of isolation.  That turnaround began in the 1960s, but Spanish society by that time had spawned a generation or two of very cautious consumers who had been nurtured on rationed services.  That meant that even as things began to improve, few had it in them to spend freely, let alone splurge meaninglessly.  That was the essence. Spending had to be meaningful and when so, sparing.  Spaniards were savers forcibly by habit, not by nature.  The recent generations of spendthrifts are proof of that.

            There you have it.  My morning walk to the bathroom to start my every day, every day.

In Spanish,Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

April 21, 2013

25 Years in Spain: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 8

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As luck would have it, I didn’t have to go through the dreadful process of becoming a certified private driver in this country at the cost of hours of classes and dents in my wallet.  Law and the lawmakers would change that no long afterwards, but when I was still a stripling in this town, you could mosey on down to places like the RACE offices, which used to be on Bravo Murillo I believe, and fork over 5,000 pesetas for someone in the office to give you one.  They just assumed you knew how to drive.

            But first, and there always is a “but first” in this country, you had to locate a nearby medical center where you could undergo a test known as a psicotécnico, which sounded to me at first like they wanted to hook me up to a bunch of wires, show me blot images while playing  Tom Jones’ songs in the background and ask how I was feeling.

         It turned out to be just a fancy name for a physical.

         And not a very physical one at that.  I didn’t have to sprint a hundred yards in under 12 seconds, but they did look into certain fairly important sensorial qualities like eyesight and eye-hand coordination. In other words, could I see and just how much or if a train were coming as I crossed the tracks, would I know what to do.

         But first, because there always had to be a first, I had to pay for this.  This cost me in the neighborhood of about 5,000 pesetas, or what amounted to about a day’s work for me.

         The eye test was complete but not the end of everything.  Essentially they told me everything I already knew.  They wrote on a paper that I needed glasses, which I knew since that was the feeling I always got about myself when I took off my specs.  They added that I should I have a replacement pair available at all times, which is true, but I don’t.

         Up to that point, the test had proceeded without serious challenge, but the good people at the clinic had a trick up their sleeve which they had failed to inform me of.  It was time for the eye-hand coordination game to see how good the rest of my reflexes were.  For some reason I figured tat this would amount to little more that a rubber hammer being thudded below my kneecap, but the office had something slightly more sophisticated in mind. They were video games.

         There exist a number of tests, and on this occasion I got to face one.  It consisted of watching a ball appear from the left side of the screen, then disappear beneath a kind of block.  I was supposed to judge when the right time would be for the ball to stop before crashing into a wall on the right side.  To do this I was supposed to press a button at the moment I felt was right.  Graphically speaking it had all of the appeal of one of those 1970s prototype video games, but that didn’t matter because the reality was it had the power to determine my future as a driver.

         I had always assumed that my hours of Friday timewasting at the local arcade in my hometown would somehow come in handy later on in life, and this seemed like the moment had presented itself.  The best place was in the bowling lanes.  Yes, Greenwich had both a bowling lane and an arcade.  They happened to be in the same place.  This may have been a concerted effort to confine all cheesiness to one place, but we knew where the cheesiness was.  So, instead of making the most of my weekend to get a little studying in, I generally waned away my youth before a video screen uselessly making imaginary spaceships disappear until they did the same to me.

        I figured this bit of early training should have been enough to ease me through the test and probably contributed to my nonchalant attitude at the clinic. That was until the inspector looked at my results and said, “Please take this seriously.”

       “What?”

        “You’ve crashed your balls into the wall at least three times.  According to this you’re not fit to ride a tricycle.”

       So, I did, and after some further concentration managed to pass.

        Then I went back and requested the new driver’s license.  But first, and there always is a “but first”, I had to fork over another 5,000 pesetas as a general fee for no particular reason.  It’s supply and demand.  I wanted to drive, and only they could get make that happen.   So, it was another 5,000 pesetas for the system.

      A few days later, my friend back at RACE handed me my pink foldable driver’s license and said that I now had permission to drive amongst the other 38 million Spaniards, which I felt was a reasonable offer for just a few buckaroos.

       All I needed to do was learn.

Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

April 6, 2013

25 Years in Spain: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 8

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In finally came time for me to forgo public transportation and return to the means that made my country what it is, for better or worse: the car.  After all, that was what I had been born and raised to do.  Buses and subways were neat in an environmental sort of way, but even the most hardnosed ecologist, and I certainly wasn’t one, found living without a Ford handy to be a bit of a chore.  I could handle this for a while, but finally I needed to get back on the road and back to my American roots.

The problem was, I didn’t have a car, nor did I have a Spanish driver’s license, and while this is all right for a temporary stay, it was becoming evermore clear to me that I was in this country for the long haul and needed to be able to have an official permit.

Now getting your license inSpainis, in short, complicated, tricky and expensive.  Really expensive.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 when all is said in done.  The process from beginning to end is long and painful, and failing is commonplace.  Of course, once you have one, then you have to go out and learn how to drive because as anyone can tell you, the real knowledge comes through experience.  Not so, say the Spanish.  First you have to practically a perfect driver.  Then you can hit the streets.  But this ideas coincides with Spanish mentality in general, which puts greater emphasis on actually possessing a degree or permit than actually knowing how to do something well.  There is certainly nothing wrong with being well-trained.  But true expertise appears over the years.

When I was growing up, it was the exact opposite.  Obtaining a permit to drive a motorized vehicle inConnecticutwas so easy that if you didn’t manage to pull it off the first time around, you were the laughing stock of school.  That was where the pressure was.  It was almost like failing a college entrance exam because you didn’t know your times table.  The written test was an arcade video-game style multiple choice question which told you as you went how you were doing.  I never reached the brink stage, but it did add a little excitement to the challenge.  Then came time for the driving stage.  My test consisted of pulling out of the parking lot and making four right turns around the block and pulling back in.  The examiner said to me, “Congratulations!  You are a very good driver.”

And I said to myself, “How do you know?  I haven’t done a thing.”  I almost had an accident that very afternoon because, and let’s be honest with ourselves, I still had a long way to go before I could really drive.

It was also easy because you didn’t have to even learn how to use a manual transmission car as most cars were automatic.  Americans had long made it clear that they were going to make efforts to create the kind of technology that would allow machines do all the work for us.  We are getting closer and closer to cars that can move without our assistance; they can already park on their own.

But deep down it was everyone young man’s desire to want to know how to use stick because it was the sign of a true macho, but all the horror stories of trying to get one ton of metal forward on your own with leaving the engine on the ground was a greater deterrent than anyone of our wishes.

I recall my friend Richie who would tell of his experiences at driving school under the tutelage of a man named Vinny who apparently cherished his car more than all other objects on this planet.  This is why I have always wondered why that man would subject the center of his life to the inexperienced hands and feet of dozens of teenagers, but the world is full of contradictions, and money too.

Richie would slowly stick the shaft into first, the car rolling, slip it into second, accelerate, drive into third and then fourth and, amid the ecstasy of the moment, quite possibly my friend had mentally turned Vinny into a beautiful blonde with a sexy private school kilt and sweater on, and looking to increase the power and the intensity of the moment, grabbed the handle of the gear lever and gruffly forced it into what he thought was the fifth and final speed.

The car screamed out, not too differently from the way a sow might should a knife be opening its chest, then all sorts of metal and oil crashed within, and the car lunged forward another ten feet before halting there and then causing its passengers to whip back against the fake leather upholstery.

Vinny scratched his forehead and sighed the way you might when you thought about sending a person to go scuba-diving at the bottom of a lake with ten sacks of cement, and then asked.

 “Richie.  Do you like me?”

 My friend would answer eagerly.  “Yeah, Vinny.  Of course.”

 “Then if you like me, why do you do this to me?”

 “I don’t know?”

 “How many speeds does this car have?”

  “Four.”

  “Very good.” He breathed heavily again. “Do you know what you just did?”

  “I spaced and stuck the engine into reverse.”

  “At what speed?”

  “45 mph.”

 “Is that you should do to a highly complex motor in motion?”

 “Definitely not.”

 “Very good.”

“So, if it’s all right with you. Please try to remember that there are four speeds on this car.  Do you think that will be possible?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good.  Now, start the car, please.”

Vinny sounded to me that he would have been an excellent high school teacher had he not been so keen on his car and gambling.

In Spain, as I said, it’s a whole different world.  You have to go to classes, read books, take required driving classes, shell out hundreds of dollars and pray.  Then you have to pass the written test, and if you do, wait before you can take the practical test and, and here’s the tough part, actually pass it.  The tension it causes has been known to make people act irrationally.  I know of a case in which a woman was told to pull out and turn right and, oppressed by her own nerves, unbuckled her seatbelt and tried to climb over the driver and leave the car “on the right”.  I also know of cases where candidates had to retake the test up to seven times. It’s one big money-making machine.

I was in no way up for the task and even reconsidered the benefits of walking and public transport.  Living12 milesfrom my school and the next metro workers’ strike made me change my mind.

Spain,Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

March 9, 2013

25 Years in Spain: Trains, Planes and Automobiles 7

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Buses have always been an option inSpain. Europein general excels at this form of transport and still does.  Sure they occasionally tumble off cliffs or plunge into lakes, and sure a weary driver might fall asleep at the wheel from time to time, causing dozens of victims to be tossed around in the interior like fleshy toys in a box.  But on the whole, when bodies aren’t being mangled, they really are a solid way of getting around the country, and measurably more pleasant when compared their American counterparts.  That’s the country where people say, “You came by what?  Did you just get out of jail or something like that?”

       Spaniards who have been toAmericaand, now here’s the real factor, have actually sat their buns down on one for any extended period of time, can personally vouch for this.  They know what I mean.  Every time I take a group over to the States, the minute they see the bus waiting to pick them up at the airport, the gawk, “What the hell is that?”  But they do want to get on because deep down I know they are aching to find something which is technologically inferior to what they have and they are absolutely right.

        And that’s because Europe is entirely different.  They take their bus travel seriously.  The autocares are capacious, comfortable, smooth and sleek.  And they take you to a lot of places a train or plane can’t.  There is just one thing, I can’t stand them.  I really can’t.  Oh, I know if I have to travel that way, I will get to where I want with relative ease and style, and that there exist worse modes, but they just aren’t my thing.  No matter how much has been done to ensure comfort, they just plain seem poorly designed to me, and they are only really useful if you are interested in discovering where all the muscles in your body are.  After a few hours, each strand lets you know its location and how it is feeling at the moment, which generally ranges from dreadful to deathly.

            On top of that, bus trajectories tend to highlight local tourism and ensure success by stopping in every goddamn town the region has available.  And, as luck would have it, someone always has to be picked up at one those places.  The traveler straggles out of the bar where he has purchased his ticket and hoists his body onto the vehicle, where he scans the aisle for a free seat. Then the bus, hisses, the engines grumbles and grinds, and the whole ten tons begin to roll away.

       They run through the same procedure twenty-five times on a trip, so at night, the notion of getting rest is something the non-passengers in the country will get plenty of on your behalf. The awful movie selection tends to do the rest.

       I can stand maybe two or three hours of them, but then I just want to start being nasty to people beyond that point; and I can assure you that I act indiscriminately.  Back in the 1980s, I had little say in the matter.  Buses were cheap and so was I.  But it soon became apparent to me that, being an American and thus born with wheels, I would need to get my hands on a car.

Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

February 22, 2013

Planes, Trains and Automobiles 6

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I didn’t believe it when they told me, but it finally turned out to be true.  The tracks between Spain and France were a different size. Francewent by the international standard gauge, with a width 4ft 8 ½ inches across; but on this side of the Pyrenees, the authorities preferred the wider Iberian gauge, which comes to 5ft 5 2/3 inches.  It’s the second broadest track in the world, just a fraction narrower than the Indian gauge.  This is no doubt a tidbit of trivia most citizens of this world do not know, and may not see the need to, but there you have it, a fact all the same.  This discrepancy in iron girth, struck me as yet another example ofEurope’s inability to set up its infrastructure in a cohesive manner, in addition to its myriad currencies, languages World Wars and such; and I may just be on the mark.  Common Lore claims it was a deliberate attempt by the Spanish to keep other Europeans nations, in particular the French, from invading the country via the railway routes.

     There may be a shred of truth there since France had on more than one occasion proven itself inclined to incur and plunder this land, with extreme prejudice, I might add.  What better way to hinder future aspirations of this kind than to make an entire army hop off the train at the frontier and hoof it from there.  No one likes to hike thePyreneesbefore battle, I can assure you.  It makes for uncomfortable warfare.

      Of course, on the other hand, no one has considered the thought that maybe it was the rest of the countries which narrowed their tracks to keep the Spanish out.  Unlikely as it may seem, it is fair to mention all the same.

      Despite the general belief, no specific mention of any military aims was made when the Iberian gauge was established as this country’s official size back in 1950s. Spainjust likes to be different it would seem.

      Decades later it meant that if you wanted to invade the rest of the continent as a tourist, first you had to alight at a town called Portbou, cross the border and hoist yourself back on another at Cerbere to carry onto Avignon.  Or something like that.  It may be that in Portbou itself there was a continental track parallel to the one we had used.  In any event, the peculiarity came across as quirky at first, but the novelty soon wore off.  On top of that, my friend John, who had bought some kind of fancy six-month all included pass, had to pay the sucker’s surcharge.  But that was in France, and that was the French.Le supplemént du Sucker, I think they denoted it.  The return was similar, just the other way around in almost every sense.  We got back on the Spanish train and bolted back toMadrid, passing byBarcelona.  The German was no where in sight.  That meant he had either recovered or been admitted to a hospital.  Having no money on us and no new travel companion to get drunk with, we were forced to deal with the backboard without the assistance of booze.  Soon the bench’s virtues as an instrument of torture became more apparent by the hour, and the passengers who shared our cabin had the annoying habit of living in places whose stations we reached at the most unsettling hours.  Sleep was seldom.  Slumber even rarer.

     We finally made it to Madrid just past dawn.  It was Easter Sunday.  We had returned with an American friend who was living in Avignon and yearned to spend a week or two in Spain to catch some halfway decent weather.  When we sat down to lunch, we paused in mid-meal to stare out the window with astonishment as the first snowflakes of the winter tumbled to earth.  Although it was early April, it was the first time that year.  Expect the unexpected from Madrid.  Always.

Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

February 19, 2013

25 years: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 5

Once inSpain, air travel was of little interest to the mortal like me who, as a student, rarely had a budget to even take a taxi, let alone hop on a Boeing jet toBarcelona. And since I didn’t have access to a car, or to anyone who did, bus and train travel took priority.

      This meant a departure from what was seen as common wisdom among Americans for whom the thought of taking a train was often considered a crappy, and even creepy, way of moving long distances.  It was surpassed only by bus travel, mule riding and, perhaps, late-night hitchhiking near border towns, as the least sensible form of getting around.  Going by bus, in particular, spoke of dire situations.  It symbolized the last hope for American civilization.  In fact, it was what you took when you had no hope left at all.  The next step was crawling.

      But Europe was a different game altogether.  Public transport had long been praised for its efficiency and high quality.  This was especially true of the railroad.  It is said that, like any good dictator, Franco made a point of it that the trains ran on time, and my goodness, it would seem that his policy still held true well beyond the time of his timely death.  But there was more to this means of travel than just keeping to the timetable.  Train travel was something intrinsicallyOld World, something that rang of tradition, mystery, World Wars, revolutions, romance.  All wrapped up on a wagon and rail.

     America had taken but a couple of decades to push aside the usefulness of its long-distance railroad system.  Oh, everyone knows it still worked, and made crossing theRockiesa treat.  But if you were going from, say New York to Philadelphia, there wasn’t much sentimental value in munching on some Planter’s Peanuts and watching the marshy Meadowlands go by.

      Plus it was every Europe-bound university student’s dream to get hold of a InterRail pass and get lost, robbed and swindled all over the continent, for the sake of saving a few bucks.

       I was among the aspirants, but never lived out my dream.  It is a pending matter in my life.

       In any event, I did get a chance to do a little train travelling.  The first trip I ever took was a short one to nearby Toledo.  My friend John and I left from the Atocha Train Station, the same one that would suffer the horrific bombings by Al Qaeda in 2004.  Back in 1988, the trains still came into the old part of the terminal, though this is now an indoor tropical garden, haven for weary and hungry travelers and unwanted turtles.  We took on the ticket window with reasonable success, made our way to the track, found an empty pair of seats and pulled out on time, if I recall correctly, screeching into our destination about an hour later.  It was an old seemingly dusty depot, reminiscent of some Hemingway novel, I write for want of a less clichéd description.  The return was handled with the same uneventful batch of minutes.  We stumbled back into Madrid happy with what we had seen, content with the journey, but otherwise,

       One of my first true encounter occurred when John and I decided to visit our friend Aleko who was studying French in Avignon, or so he said.  You never knew.  It was our spring break, and through a miscalculation of funds, meaning I had spent to much, I had four days to try and make it on about 5000 pesetas, which was about $50.  We were covered but room, but board was going to be decidedly tougher.

       In any event, I managed to purchase a ticket via my credit card, it was an American Express that my parents had given me in case of emergencies.  American Express was about as useful as Monopoly money in most European establishments, but the railroads accepted them.  They tend to accept anything, even person property and family members.

      This time we were planning on taking a night train, which is really short for “Nightmare” train, but they want to withhold this bit of information for obvious marketing issues.

       At that time, there were two types of coaches: the ones with compartments with benchlike seats and the ones with sleepers, a name which only suggested its purpose without fully complying with its promise.  The former, though, was what we had.  This was all right at first because it reminded us of those old mystery and spy movies.  I might say Harry Potter, but the little wizard hadn’t even been conceived in the mind of the J.K. Rowling yet, so we will have to go back further in time.  With my only real reference being the Metro North commuter train inNew York, these quaint apartments were everything a savage and unrefined American could want.  At least for the first fifteen minutes.  Then you start to ask certain questions.  “John, what do you think of these seats?”

    “They’re stiff.”

    “Stiff?  I’d say they’re orthopedic.”  I felt I had been impaled.

    “How long did you say the trip was?”

     “About twelve hours.”

     “I guess we should start drinking soon, don’t you think?”

     “By all means.”

     We had bought two six-packs in the station before leaving figuring we had to bring something along to keep us entertained.

     Luckily for us, there was only a third visitor in our cabin and he was young.  He was German and was going to stop off in Barcelona for just one day on his way home.  He was not a very sizeable specimen of the Teutonic race and wore round intellectual glasses.  He looked like he enjoyed writing incendiary political pamphlets to be distributed outside factories.  But he liked beer too, which was only natural, and with that hobby in common, we spent a few hours getting to know each other and having a few laughs.  I don’t really remember anything about the man’s life.  In fact, all I can say is that the sliver of his personal timeline that he shared with us was devoted to becoming intoxicated.  So much so, in fact, that he ending up slurring his words so badly I thought he was speaking to us in German.  Then he retired to the toilet for the rest of the evening.

      At dawn, I went to the tiny bathroom to fetch him.  He was lying facedown and his feet were sticking out the door.  I grabbed the right shoe, lifted it and let it drop with a thump.  “Hey Fred,” or whatever his name was. “We’re coming into Barcelona.  You’re going to miss you stop.”

       He was half-covered in vomit, but surprisingly polite about my wake-up call.  He wobbled onto his feet.  I went for his gear, stuffed it in his arms and saw to it he got off in one piece.  I still wonder whatever became of him on that day in Barcelona.  Perhaps, and this would not be a first, he is still there.

Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

February 14, 2013

Planes, Trains and Automobiles 4

Spantax, by the way, gets its name from Spanish Air Taxis Aero Líneas, which aptly described the company’s earliest services and also explains the unfortunate acronym.  I still think it’s a dreadful choice.  Founder and former Iberia pilot, Rodolfo Bay Wright, may have known a thing or two about flying planes, but he could have done with course on marketing, and I fret to think what would have become of our animals had he been in charge of naming each and every one of them.

        He, along with former stewardess, Marta Estades Sáez, created the company in 1959.

         I may have taken a stab or two, or thirty, at the airline, but it would only be fair to say that before I became acquainted with it in its moribund stage, Spantax came to fly as many as 2,000,000 travelers annually.  Originally served as mainly what its name indicated, a taxi service. Apparently, many of the clients were geologists flying into Africa who were in search of areas to exploit for multinationals.  As the fleet grew and modernized, jets were introduced in the mid-1960s, and with the increased the routes and the passengers.  The 1970s saw the height of the company’s operations as they carried travelers to Europe and North America.  The pride of the flotilla originally was the Convair 990, followed by DC-8s, DC-9s and DC-10s.  I can’t tell you which one I took, all I recall is that comfort was spared at all expense with the intention of using no expense.  I was just glad to make it back to the ground.

       Spantax held its own into the early 80s and even registered solid returns for several years; but rising fuel costs and greater competition dragged it mercilessly down, until it reached a point of no return.  In March of 1988, it ceased activities.

            Spantax did have its share of tragedies, probably at a time when air travel even among big names was slightly less safe, to be fair.  The biggest by far took place in the Los Rodeos Airport in Tenerife, where a Convair 990 plunged just after takeoff making in one of the deadliest Spanish airline accidents in history.  Los Rodeos, by the way, is no stranger to aeronautic catastrophes.  It was there that this site that two ill-fated 747s, packed to the hilt, met in a horrific runway collision.  It was infamous Pan Am-KLM collision, the worst single commercial crash of all time.

            Spantax also met some fortune.  On one occasion, an air-traffic controllers’ strike inFranceled to a midair collision between an Iberia and Spantax aircrafts – you can now appreciate Reagan’s decision to fire the ones in the States.  TheIberiaflight partially clipped the Spantax wing, but the latter managed to return to Earth safely while the former resulted in the death of all of its passengers. So, I guess the lucky part depended heavily on which plane you were in.

            Little is left of the defunct airline.   Barely a memory.  Aside from a quick entry in Wikipedia, I only found a simple website devoted to its history.  Ironically, it was set up by a foreigner who lives inSpain, not me, and who has taken a nostalgic fondness for it, definitely not me.

            But I know the feeling.

Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

February 2, 2013

25 Years in Spain: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 3

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Reliving the day is almost as disagreeable as the trip itself.  Even twenty-five years ago just plain awful from nearly the beginning and just got progressively worse.

     Getting over to the airport went smoothly enough, I guess.  Even John looked surprisingly calm.  He just laid his head against the window, breathed into the pane from time to time and drew doughnuts with sprinkles on top.  Whatever it took to take his mind off the stress, that was my strategy.  I was just happy my little pep talk had finally made him relax.   I knew I had a knack for guiding people through trying times.  Things were brightening up.

     That was, of course, until we arrived at John Fitzgerald Kennedy International Airport and saw the line that awaited us.  In reality, it had started miles back at the Whitestone Bridge and had become progressively thicker from there.

     The real problem behind this all was the kind of flight our travel abroad program had assigned us.  As I mentioned before, the company was called Spantax, and though in America the name didn’t amount to much, in Spain the word, when pronounced correctly, eerily resembles the Spanish verb “espantar”, which means “to frighten”.  As a young student of the language I was not privy to this information, which meant I pressed on with my plans oblivious to what I was getting myself into.  It was an regular charter, a kind of oxymoron in air travel jargon, and a bad joke amongst travelers.  But it did prove that the FAA had a sense of humor.

     The check-in line was actually longer than the plane itself; so long, in fact, that I was sure we couldn’t all possibly want to take the same flight.   So I immediately decided to clear up the confusion and politely asked the man in front of us.  He was short and balding in most spots of his head and wore a cardigan jacket beneath a thick overcoat; just the kind of person who would know the information I was looking for.  He looked Spanish, but I spoke to him in English because, hell, we were still in America, and it was my constitutional right to speak my mother tongue.

     “Yes, it’s the flight to Madrid,” he replied with a noticeable accent.

     “All of us?!  What are we taking, a B-52?”

     “Ha!  You’ve never flown with Spantax before, have you?”

     “No, why? Should I have?”

     “Oh, you’ll see.”  And then he turned and faced the river of humanity ahead of us.  I now think it was because he had to laugh and didn’t want me to see.

     “What did he mean by that?” enquired John, with a nudge and a yawn.

     “It means this is gonna be a long flight, I guess.  Either that or were going to die.”

     “Oh, I don’t want to hear that kind of stuff now man?  This whole scene is really starting to bum me out.”  He began stepping away.  “I’m outta here.”

      “Where are you going?  Get back here.  What do you want us to do, lose our place in line?  Charter flights can be messy things, believe you me.  People leave their civility out by the sliding doors.”

     The only saving grace was that John was probably the largest passenger on the flight.  To talk to him, you had to position your neck as if you were looking up at the ceiling.  Chances are others would avoid confrontation with him, unless they were armed.  Still, you had to watch your step.

     “I was just going for a walk man.  Take in the scenes.”

      “What scenes?  This is the International Arrivals Building.   What could possibly interest you here?”

      “Those funky departure flight panels over there.  I think I’ll go check them out.  They blink and stuff.”

      “Hey what’s wrong with you?  I’ve noticed you’ve been acting strange all morning.  You seem so calm.  I feel like I spending a semester abroad with a yogi.”

      “It’s my new attitude man.  Except for the last minute or so, I’ve been flying already.  I guess those pills must have expired.”

       “Pills?  What pills?”  I asked.  He looked at me sheepishly.  “John!  What pills are you talking about?”

      “It’s no big deal, man.  Nothing illegal.  I just popped a few of your allergy pills to help get by on.  They were the only thing I could find in your medicine cabinet.”

     Those were my favorite drugs.  The ones I used to write poetry with, which probably explains why my poems were such crap.

     “Antihistamines?  What are you nuts?  Those are for allergies.”

     “I know man.  That’s what I just said.  I’m allergic to planes man, ha, ha, ha.” he sniggered.

     “That explains everything.  You gotta be careful with those things.  They can knock you out.  You’re not supposed to do things like drive lawnmowers or shoot people with them.  They dull your senses.  How many did you take?”

     “Not too many; I didn’t want to overdose.  Just four.”

      “Four!  You’re not supposed to take more than one at a time.”  There may have been a possibility that we would be splattered to smithereens in the middle of the Atlantic, but one thing was for sure, I could rest assured that John would not be sneezing on the way.

      “Under normal circumstances.  But this isn’t normal.  I had to make sure they were going to have an effect.”

      “Well trust me, they are.  You look like you just woke up from a coma.  Forget the departure board.  Why don’t you get yourself a cup of coffee somewhere?”  This was before the days of Starbucks, at least on the East Coast.  The best we could do back then was a Choc Full o’Nuts counter.

     “But I thought we shouldn’t leave the line.”

     “That’s all right.  I’ll hold you place for you.  We’re not going anywhere for a long time.”

       “You’d hold your place for me?  My friend, you are a good man.  God will hold you in kind regard for this, mark my words.  And I don’t even believe in him.  I’ll be back with a gift of appreciation for you.”  Then he gave me the Vulcan “V” sign.

     “That’s just great.  You can forget the gift and just worry about getting yourself back in time.  Be careful out there.  There’s a lot of wierdos crawling around theInternationalArrivalsBuilding.  Trust me.  It’s one of the most dangerous places on Earth.”

     “Mark my words.”

      “Fine I will.  See yah.”

       I turned back to see if we had moved at all when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

       “Just had an idea.  You wouldn’t happen to have any Life Savers? You know the ones with five flavors.”

      “No!  So leave me alone.”

       “Chill out man.  I can deal.”

       “Well, I can’t.  At this rate, we’ll be lucky if we ever get toSpain.”

       “All right. I’ll try something else.”

      John returned thirty minutes later apologizing that he would have been back earlier had it not been for the fact he had gotten in the Aer Lingus line by mistake until he realized that they were not speaking Spanish but English with a funny accent.  He had a Dr Pepper and a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips for me.  I passed on the soda because I could never figure out what flavor they were trying to emulate, and that made me nervous, but accepted the chips as a gesture of peace.  I was also hungry, in need of a cigarette and quite possibly a beer.

      We didn’t get our boarding passes until 5:45, fifteen minutes after the plane was supposed to take off.  And there were several dozen flyers behind us.  Needless to say, the aircraft wasn’t going anywhere.  It was a charter flight, for God’s sake, albeit an “official” one, and the problem with charters is that they are often sorely undermanned on the ground.  That means delays, more delays and lots more delays.  If the plane misses its scheduled take-off time, it is usually bumped behind the major airlines until later that evening.

      There was also word of a baggage handlers’ strike, which only made things worse.  Baggage handlers are kind of like the stomachs of the airport organism.  You fail to appreciate their importance until they begin to fail you.  Then you wished you never had an ill thought about one in your life.

      On the other hand, when it is 10:00 p.m. and you are still at the gate, you basically don’t care who is to blame, you just want solutions.  Spantax’s answer up to that point was to keep us in the dark about the truth. They knew the power of withholding information, and they exercised it to expertise levels.  The hostesses at the counter would just smile at the endless enquiries and say, “Wish we could help.  But they haven’t told us anything yet.”  God, they were effective.

       John and I moseyed off to a bar and began digging into our budget in exchange for a few skunky-smelling Becks.  In hindsight, there may have been some clear issues with mixing alcohol with antihistamines, but when you are twenty years old, those thoughts don’t come into play. In fact, if anything, they encourage you to experiment.

     Eventually some garbled instructions emanated from the PA system.  Back then they still alerted of boarding times over the airwaves without fear of a liability suit.  This was encouraging, in a pathetic sense that only desperation can produce, as it soon became apparent that departure was at least in the foreseeable future.  For the airline, I hesitate to call it such as it sounds too professional, it was a way to get us on the aircraft and make us feel as if we were closer to our destination.  That way we would shut up.

     There were so many rows onboard it became immediately evident that the designers did not have 20th Century people in mind when considering space.  I mean, if we had been a travel group of Australopithecus, well perhaps our gripe would have come under certain debate, but Spantax had clearly placed quantity over quality when deciding how many seats to fit in the plane, and thus comfort was spared at all expenses.  To put down the tray in front of me, I had to bend my elbows sideways and breathe in deeply.  John, to my left, could kiss his knees without even moving his head.  There we sat for an hour and a half reliving the horrors of life before the advent of air conditioning.  Just when I thought we were going to run out of oxygen, the aircraft started to move and head bumpily for the runway.  It is my firm conviction that we were the last plane to leave the airport that day.

     The plane started roaring down the runaway in Queens, then got on the Long Island Expressway for the rest of the takeoff.  By Montauk Pointwe were off the ground.  Most passengers sought relief at the bar cart, but naturally, as a charter, there just wasn’t enough alcohol to go around, causing no uncertain uneasiness among the masses, as we were left to practice yoga without any release.  And believe me, a good book wasn’t going to do the job.  John got out of it lucky.  A half an hour into the flight he fell asleep from a combination of excessive anti-hay fever doping and limited oxygen in take.  From time to time, I’d check his pulse just for good measure.  What are friends for?

      However, that essentially left me without anyone to entertain me, and I normally need plenty of it to get me through these ordeals.  Much of the rest of the flight has been essentially suppressed from my memory.   The aircraft sounded like it was connected to a life support system.  The engines ground and moaned like ailing refrigerators.  Inside wasn’t much better.  It was loud, cramped, asphyxiating, claustrophobic and stale.  I just had to sit and stare and let the polluting inactive cabin air form a layer of crap over my skin.  And that was the extent of it.  Except for the landing, of course, when the pilot decided to touch ground when the plane was still about a quarter of a mile above the Earth.  God, I thought the wheels were about to snap.  That finally jolted my friend astir.

     “What, Jesus!” he swore and flung his arms around as best as he could.  “Did we have an accident?  What should we do?  Where’s that instructions card again?  Oh, Christ, why wasn’t I listening to the stewardess when I was supposed to.   My fifth grade teacher warned me it would get me into trouble one day!”  He kept muttered and fumbled through the pocket in the seat back.

      “Would you knock it off.  We haven’t crashed!  We’re here!”

      “Oh, really.  Well that was easy enough.  Flying’s a breeze.  Viva España!”

A few months later while John and I went to visit some college mates of ours who were studying in Avignon, France, and we read in the Herald Tribune that our beloved airline Spantax had folded.  No, really?  Who could have imagined that?

         “John, I think we’re stuck here for a while.”

         That was particularly true in my case.

Twenty-Five Years and Still Running

January 30, 2013

Planes, Trains and Automobiles 2

We were speechless for a few seconds before he finally broke in again.

“Uh, do your folks have any valium hanging around?”

“I’m not sure,” I gulped.  “Let’s go take a look.”

Upstairs I poked my finger around the medicine chest and found lots of brown plastic cylinders with polysyllabic medicinal names typed on them, but nothing indicating that they would make us hang out on a couch for hours munching on Doritos.  In fact, the wrong kind of cocktail just might impede our learning Spanish, or anything else for that matter, for a long, long time.

I gripped a bottle of St. Joseph’s chewable children’s aspirin.  The ones with the orange flavor that I loved so much.  “I dunno, John,” I grimaced.  “I’m not up for experimenting.  I don’t want to watch you racing down the center aisle screaming ‘I am the walrus’ while flying over theAtlantic.  Why don’t you try these laxatives?  They’re good for easing the tension.”

“That’s all right.  My system’s already taken care of that department for the last week.”

“Well, I guess, then, it’s just up to our iron-nerves, a couple of draft beers at the airport bar and Mr. Phillip Morris,” I concluded. “How does that sound to you?”

“Sounds like crap,” he admitted stoically. “I want drugs.”

“St. Joseph’s?  We could down the pills, eat the paper label, too, and slam back some vodka shots for good measure.”  I figured the last par would at least assure us a good buzz.

“That’s all right man.  I have a philosophical heart, so don’t mind me.”

“That’s the spirit,” I cheered and led him to the living room.  “Now, let’s go and enjoy our last day here.”

His body screeched to halt.

“Oh, for crying out loud.  Would you chill out!  It’s not like we’re going on the Hindenburg or something like that.  Come on.  Let’s watch a Cheers rerun.  That’ll take your mind off things.”