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24 Hours in La Mancha

March 1, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 hours in La Mancha 10

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“Fernando, it sounds like you’re trying to seduce me. Are you sure there are just vegetables out there?”

          “Keep your pants on. It’s just food.”

          “Don’t worry. I’m planning on doing just that.”

          We went out to the back patio to see the latest. Victoria tried to discourage us from going out saying we’d be a pile of ashes before we got to the first row of vegetables, but that didn’t stop us. “Mad dogs and Englishmen, Victoria. Mad dogs and Englishmen.”

          I wouldn’t quite call the patio a garden in the traditional sense of the word. It would be misleading. Images conjured up from Hollywood romantic comedies taking place in the south of France or Tuscany have raised our expectations of what a typical Mediterranean backyard really looks like. We expect the terrace behind the house to afford paradisiac views of verdant rolling hills, well-trimmed vineyards, fluttering butterflies, soaring birds and rays of sun bursting through the deep green leaves of the Holmes oaks. Unfortunately, except for the odd spectacular country villa perched on a distant hill, those are rare scenes in La Mancha. The Spanish like to clump together. Most towns are compact like Lego pieces, and new additions simply latch on to the outer ring.  Life wasn’t about living out in the middle of nowhere, away from humanity, with a glass of red wine eternally in your hand. It centered on being together, banding together and focused on pragmatism above all.

          In addition to being drier than a drunkard’s mouth the morning after a binge, the backyards were working stations, not luscious yards with lawn furniture and a grill. The Ruiz house, no different in this sense, still bore vestiges of the way people lived and labored a century ago. The right side of the courtyard was lined all the way to the end of the property with old tile-roofed sheds, each with room after room of storage spaces stacked with objects that once were useful to the owners but now would be better off mounted on the wall of a country inn, where the urbanite guests would feel that their over-priced rooms were well worth the rate. Dusty varnished beams, rusty rods, chipped amphorae, wheels, piled bricks, cracked stones, wooden rakes, threshing boards, pitchforks, wobbly ladders and a massive array of iron tools, mostly heavy, sharp and unpredictable when used. It didn’t seem like a fun world back then, but rather one fraught with hard work, sweat and plenty of labor-related chronic injuries.

          Additional areas included former stables and quarters for the farmhands. Now these shelters had become the ideal place to semi-retire the stuff you no longer wanted in Madrid without having to pay monthly fees for a storage room. It’s a common practice in Spain. The what-to-dos ended up in a kind of refugee camp for unwanted crap.

          On the left there was a kind of platform whose use I could never figure out other than that it served as a roof for the cellar, where wine, oil, and other products used to be kept. The consistent temperatures and humidity levels below made them ideal for food preservation. It’s since been converted into a multipurpose rec room, bar, with couch and lava lamp included.

          We walked forward under a canopy of dark-green grape vines, with each bunch neatly nestled in a sack to prevent the birds from picking away at the fruit. Then it was up the steps and out to the center of food-production operations. These were no ordinary grouping of vegetables and fruits, I’ll have you know. These were the Navy Seals of the flora kingdom. Quinces, Figs, Olives. Their names might have gotten them laughed at in the playground at the School of Horticulture, but if you ask me, these are some the toughest little photosynthesizers the world has known. Blistering summer days, icy winter nights, sporadic rainfall, all the elements that strangle, mangle and paralyze weaker specimens of their kind, are welcomed by these plants. It’s as if they were married to Death. “Bring it on,” they say. “We don’t need no water. We can hang on until October. How about you?” 

          “I’d be babbling by Thursday and curled up by Friday morning,” I say back.

          As I admired the sturdiness of these trees, I stopped and raised my head, distracted by an unfamiliar noise. “What the hell is that sound?”

          “Let me show you,” said Fernando proudly. “It’s my latest invention.”

24 Hours in La Mancha

February 20, 2019

Figs Of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 9

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We walked up to the entrance and figured we could go in without knocking and avoid waking anyone up. This was no easy task considering the front door we had to engage. It was one of those big-ass, heavy, dark wooden, medieval portals you might need a battering ram to break through under more hostile conditions. It was so big, in fact, that you actually entered through one of those smaller openings within the larger one, which now that we are there, happens to be called a wicket gate. Then a notion came to me, for some inane reason.

          “Wouldn’t it be funny if we opened the whole thing up and pulled the car in? I mean, isn’t that what it was originally for?”

          “For parking a Toyota Auris?” said Laura. “I don’t think so. Do you want to wake up the whole household and fill up the place with carbon monoxide?”

          I shook my head. “Well I didn’t have that in mind, but I see your point.” Poisoning a family to death with toxic fumes doesn’t send a good message to my closest friendship circles. And it certainly would have drastically reduced our chances of getting invited back.

          “But it would make for an interesting story.”

          “Timeless,” agreed Laura to humor me.

          I turned the enormous iron key which served as both an excellent device for releasing large locks as well as an effective hammer. I did it as silently as I could but the problem with Spanish country homes is that they are hopelessly devoid of any material fluffy enough to absorb sound. In fact, they tend to encourage noise to reverberate and intensify. The unlatching echoed down the hall like a gong.

          “Joder.” I winced. I might as well have done my best rendition of an angry rooster. “Maybe they didn’t hear me,” I said in a whisper.

          We crept in and quietly set our things down on the bench along the wall. It was dark inside, the way the Spanish like it. Sealed off shutters in the windows, closed doors to the adjoining rooms, thick walls, all the elements you need to keep meat from spoiling. The Spanish have been using this system for centuries to keep the heat out and it has been achieved with unparalleled success.

          “Mission complete. I think it worked,” I whispered again.

          “Richard! Laura! Why are you trying to be so quiet?” Victoria appeared, her eyes aglow, her smile as bright as ever, both alit in the darkness. She gave us each two kisses.

          We told her.

          “Don’t you worry about that! I was wide awake. I heard you coming a mile away.” It was entirely conceivable. Spanish mothers have a keener sense of hearing than a dog. I’m sure she had detected the terrestrial vibrations of our vehicle before we had even pulled off the highway.

          As we spoke, I took a look around the front hall and admired every nook and cranny of it. As an American, you can’t really ever get tired of being awed when you enter a house like this. Everything about the entrance, and the house for the matter, exudes museum perfect. The smooth stones on the floor aligned to form geometric shapes; the large mirror with the wooden frame; the beams overhead, the low door frames. I cursed to myself with extreme jealousy. “The place is looking awesome as usual, Victoria. Don’t know how you do it.”

          “Oh, you always same the same thing,” she said as she slapped me lightly. “There’s nothing to it. It’s called a maid service. Ever heard of it?”

          “He hasn’t,” revealed Laura. “He says he was so privileged as a child that he refuses to hire someone to clean the house. He calls it being humble. I call it being cheap.”

          “And I can guess who does all the cleaning in the end,” laughed Victoria as she poked Laura in the rib.

          I was just about to object to the insinuation, although it was probably true, when we heard the heavy steps of someone descending the steps and not fully conscious in their pursuit. Only one person I knew could come downstairs like Boris Karloff. Victoria might have been awake, but Fernando had definitely been snoozing away. He walked down slowly and clumsily, and then sloppily stopped at the last step. His eyes were heavy. They usually were. He bobbed his head from side to side. His hoary beard reached his stomach. “Buenas.”

          “Damn, Fer! You look like Rip Van Fuckin’ Winkle.” It had been a while since I last saw him.

          “Who?”

          “The guy who left his wife, got drunk, passed out in the mountains and didn’t come back for twenty years.”

          He scratched his head as he processed my words. “That definitely sounds like me.”

          “Oh, come on. Washington Irving?”

          “Think so.”

          He clearly had no idea. Hudson River Dutch folklore wasn’t his thing. I figured they might have picked up on the allusion to the writer, as he had penned Tales of the Alhambra and was a former Minister to Spain, but nothing.

          “Oh, it doesn’t matter.”

          Fernando was an artist. I mean a real artist. The kind who never took their success, when it came, too seriously. He had taken up photography when he was a kid, perfected it at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid, and spent several decades alternating stints in Madrid, Berlin, Naples, Oaxaca, and London, mixing graphic reports, magazine covers and personal work. Whichever came first and got him enough cash to get by. Once he traveled around the west of the United States in search of Ansel Adam’s America, which I think inspired his donning beard and flannel shirts, and returned a changed man. “That’s one fuckin’ insane country,” he summed up. And that’s all he ever said. He never told me more. I do not have the balls ask.

          Now he had put down his zoom lenses and folded his tripods and was focusing on an entirely different profession: gardening.

24 Hours in La Mancha

February 16, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 hours in La Mancha 8

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If you ever wanted to slip into a town like Cebolla surreptitiously, the best time would probably be five in the morning under the shelter of the night and the noise of the street cleaners, or five in the afternoon when everyone seeks shelter from the heat like a beetle beneath a rock. We pulled the car right up to the doorstep in order to minimize our transfer from vehicle to house and thus our exposure to powerful ways our sun can toast our skin, and got out. The heat pressed against our bodies heavily. Oppressive like being at the bottom of a pile-on. No real sound served as background noise. Maybe another car rumbling in the distance, the eerie rustle of poplar tree leaves at the command of a light convective breeze, or perhaps the thud of a bird against the ground after dying from sunstroke. The streets were so deserted I was half-expecting a bale of tumbleweed to come rambling by, which, according to what I have been told, would not have been an entirely inconceivable occurrence in those parts, just not very likely. I for one have never seen it happen.

          We were there to pay a visit to a Spanish family I had known since the first day I came to this country. They were the generous ones who had taken me in as a beer-bellied, pudgy, wide-eyed junior in college some thirty years before during my semester abroad in Madrid, when I planned to master the language in what I know realize was a laughable six months. They formed a part of a fleet of host families who seemed, from the very beginning, to look upon us Americans as hopeless, naïve, ignoramuses who needed a little more culture and a lot more Mediterranean food in our lives. I think mine actually pitied me.

          I was especially fortunate because we had a few things in common. To start with, both our families were large, making it a perfect match for me as I could adapt with relative ease to the general state of chaos that comes with mingling with tribal numbers. I used to think my family was a big thing back home. Irish-Catholic tradition. No contraceptives. Be fruitful and multiply, and all that. Eight siblings tearing up the Connecticut countryside. The principals of our private schools would uncork a bottle of Moet every time mom went into New York to deliver. My teachers never go my name right. I rarely owned something first hand. The joys and trials of the masses.

          But then I headed over to Spain and, whoa, my host family had taken us to the cleaners. Thirteen brothers and sisters. Some now with kids of their own. It was as if the Ruiz family had personally taken on the burden of repopulating the nation after the losses from the Spanish Civil War. As we speak, it is the human-manufacturing equivalent of ten Spanish couples today. The country currently posts one of the lowest birth rate rankings in the world.

          Large Spanish families are formidable clans to come up against. Even in small groups, a newcomer from a hamlet in say, northern Wales, might duck into a doorway thinking a riot has broken out. When their numbers pierce the dozen threshold, it is no longer really possible to discern what is going on or just how many are involved. The day I arrived, six juniors had bound an uncle to a chair in the center of the living room and were dancing around him making piercing whooping calls like a band of Comanche. I think I understood that this was being done in my honor. My Spanish back then had empowered me with all the communication skills of a piece of furniture, so I really had no way of replying with anything more significant than a word of baffled appreciation, “Gracias!”

          We hit it off, though, in our own way, establishing a mutual form of interface from the very beginning: I couldn’t make out a word they were saying for the first five months (especially at mealtime when they all spoke at the same time), and I can guarantee they couldn’t understand a word I was saying for the first five years; but eventually they grew used to me, which is what usually happens to people who know me.

          As the years went by, I became fully adopted by the family. Now most have settled throughout the country, mostly in different neighborhoods of Madrid or the metropolitan area, others in the provinces, and some even abroad in France and Germany. They get together for the major holidays and birthdays, and laugh, eat, drink, and outshout each other until it’s time to go home or we get booted from the restaurant. What both awes and marvels me at the same time about the Ruiz family is its diversity and, at the same time, ability to remain close. I know families which are all about the same and can’t stand each other. But this family had a publisher, a writer, an artist, a dentist, a priest, a nun, a Buddhist, a film producer, a teacher, an architect, a NGO officer, an accountant and a lawyer.  The political, moral and philosophical spectrum was just as colorful. These had all the makings for a melee at every sitting, and yet somehow they never broke down into warring. It defies all logic. Thankfully, logic can be wrong. In August, the family scatters and you can do the Tour de Ruiz by visiting each and every member, stage by stage. Beaches, mountains, plans, lakes. No ecosystem was left behind.

          The father sadly passed away a few years back, but the mother was still alive and very much kicking. Victoria was originally from this town, though her children were born in several different provinces as if she had taken it upon herself to ensure that the country stayed balanced demographically. She was a curious blend of Spain in persona. She had been a smoker since well before the days filters were used, enjoyed a good caña every evening, drove a Range Rover, which she had flipped, not once, but twice, couldn’t stand the royal family, and yet was devoutly Catholic. She hated bullfighting, but loved bulls, detested La Liga, but screamed louder than anyone during the national team’s games, didn’t have a lot to say for flamenco, but could sing the entire repertoire of Spanish folklore music. Her voice, even at the advanced age of 82 was immaculate. It was her face that should be at the top of Wikipedia’s Spain page, not some goddamn coat-of-arms.

          The Ruiz’s had their own business in town. They used to package figs, the fruit of choice in those parts, and in order to do so owned plenty of land in the surrounding area; but for the most part, that was all gone by the beginning of the present century. Most of the members no longer lived there, so why bother? Their home was a handsome 19th-century building just off the main square, standing side by side with the old town palace that barely held its walls together. It must have been a fine and proud mansion in its day, though that day was a long time ago, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were said to have spent a night or two there on their way to Toledo. This was their “Washington slept here” moment.

          The rest of the year Victoria lived in her apartment in Madrid, but during the summer she would continue a classic tradition of going back to “el pueblo” and hang out with the neighbors more distant family and get some relief from the heat. The rest of the family would stop by and spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of days. No summer was complete without dropping in to good old Cebolla, a real La Mancha town. And as anyone knows from this country, La Mancha is a no nonsense region.

Unfortunately, this year, we were only able to spend one night with Victoria and her son Fernando, before racing back to Madrid. Little did I realize at the time that those 24 hours would somehow bring me back in touch with the Spain of the last twenty years. The Spain of the past 200. Perhaps the past 2,000 years. I wasn’t asking for this to happen. I rarely do. Sometimes, when you let yourself go, centuries can come rushing back as if they had never left.

24 Hours in La Mancha

February 12, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 hours in La Mancha 7

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Laura was telling the truth. At three o’clock and with an hour-and-a-half drive ahead of us, we had nowhere to be fast. We weren’t going to make it to lunch, which is why we stacked the cooler full of sandwiches and a couple of bottles of water to tide us over on the trip. The sunlight radiated heat, blasted heat, vented heat; and the AC was at full throttle to counteract the asphyxiating air. We put our faith in the internet and once again it held our mental hand and guided us out of the web and onto the road we were looking for.

          The highway we took is known as the Carretera de Extremadura informally, officially the A-4, because it was the main route to the region of Extremadura in the west-southwest of Spain. On the way, the road exits the region of Madrid and for about 135 kilometers traverses the northwest corner of Castilla-La Mancha, where Cebolla is located. The hyphenated designation might require some explaining.

          Clearcut territoriality has never been one of Spain’s strengths. The same is pretty much true for much of Europe, for that matter, where former kingdoms, duchies, principalities, counties, and other types of regions have ebbed and flowed, shifted back and forth constantly  for centuries. The political boundaries were defined and redefined so many times that, from a historic and cultural standpoint, it is not always easy to know just where one region ends and another one starts, who they belong too and why. The discrepancies have led to disputes and struggles and, on more than one occasion, all out war. The sense is, not everyone is ever really satisfied.

          Spain is especially prone to this dilemma. For much of its history it was a loosely-formed conglomeration of kingdoms which enjoyed bickering with each other almost as much as they enjoyed taking on the Muslims in the battlefield. After centuries of living together as more or less one entity, you’d think they’d have become a creamy melting pot, but aside from the language (and even that’s contested in some areas), it’s a nation with a split-personality: a homo-nation and a hetero-nation. And if the current Catalan independence movement is anything to go by, the situation is far from resolved. Not even in the relatively calm regions.

          Consider Castilla-La Mancha, for instance. The name may sound timeless, but this new-fangled region actually started up after the return to Spanish democracy in 1976, and wasn’t even constituted until 1982, when I was still playing JV soccer and listening to A Flock of Seagulls. Up until then, the territory was officially and roughly known as New Castile (Castilla La Nueva), as opposed to Old Castile, which was north of the central mountain range which slices the country in half.

          Castile was always sort of vague geographical entity itself. From its beginnings as a small county in the province of Burgos, it broke out in search of revenge against the Moorish invaders and then grew rapidly thanks to personal glory and ambition. This came by way of a policy of continuous expansion during the Reconquista period, the time when the Christian kingdoms retook the territory they had lost from the Muslims way back in the 8th Century. Needless to say, it excelled at conquering land. By the time of the discovery of the New World in 1492, it was, along with Aragon, the most powerful kingdom of the Iberian Peninsula and had stretched its dominions to most of present-day Spain. By then, the two kingdoms were united, but it was Castile who initially benefited the most from the treasures that came in from America. The newly found continent would soon serve to boost Castile’s status to near political and economic hegemony. It had, in essence, become the first worldwide empire in history.

          Total dominance was short lived, though, as other powers like England, Holland and France steadily managed to challenge its control and rival its position. The decline was slow but unrecoverable. The country was either constantly at war or engaged in extra-official military activities, and income from the gold and silver mines fell as the lodes were depleted. What little that got through was squandered. Financial management was often nothing less than awful.

          In 1833, a member of the Ministry of Development, Javier Burgos, was commissioned with the daunting task of redesigning the makeup of the country. Up to that year, most of Spain’s regions were still officially kingdoms, though they no longer acted as such in practice. Just in case, the Monarch of Spain, Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies, ordered the nominal kingdoms to be abolished for good measure and had Sr. Burgos draw up the divisions for a new territorial setup, based mainly on the traditional regions. It meant an additional step towards the centralization of the country. Burgos chose the historical designation “Old Castile” in reference to the provinces of Palencia, Segovia, Ávila, Burgos, and Cantabria, and “New Castile”, which included Toledo, Cuenca, Guadalajara, Ciudad Real and Madrid. Those boundaries would stay essentially the same for next 150 years.

          You might notice that, up to this point, the name La Mancha does not appear anywhere, which is surprising because Miguel de Cervantes had made it famous worldwide in 1605 and you’d think it would have held a greater position of prestige. The fact is, the territory represented a geographical land more anything else, with roughly the same blobby dimensions as when it was under Muslim control and known as a taifa. The historic La Mancha comprises a large area to the south-southeast of Madrid. That’s what they call “Mancha, Mancha”. The reay McCoy. Yet everyone talks about the entire region of Castilla La Nueva as if it was La Mancha, which it isn’t really. It takes but a quick glance to see why that is. Take your car for a drive around the northern half of Cuenca, or Guadalajara, and you will encounter an entirely different landscape, filled with mountainous terrain, endless pine forests, rivers and gullies, small canyons and arid mesas. Nothing like the miles of open prairie that stretches out before you in the “Mancha, Mancha”.

          The new constitution, passed in 1978, created a new political system entirely. The new territorial design relied heavily on the former demarcations of Spain, but with some noticeable differences. Instead of regions, they became known as comunidades autónomas, and they would be endowed with many more powers and rights than they had previously had. The shift was towards decentralization, and it was an attempt to appease some of the more upstart regions like the Basque Country and Catalonia. Now, Old Castile came into partnership with the former Kingdom/Region of Leon and created Castilla y Leon, and the previously called New Castile shed Madrid –it became a comunidad in its own right— and usurped Albacete, which used to belong to the former Kingdom/Region of Murcia. Are you following me? If you feel like someone is trying to explain how hedge funds work, I completely sympathize. Just keep going.

          With the new arrangement made, they christened the land Castilla-La Mancha, which actually provided a pretty accurate description of the zone. Not everyone was delighted with the new name, mind you. If you coast around the curvy roads of northern Guadalajara, you will come across desecrated official road signs with the word “La Mancha” crossed out, usually with a crooked line of black spray paint poorly employed by an unsteady hand. That area is known as the Serranía, or the hills of Guadalajara. The people from there will tell you themselves, “We ain’t from La Mancha. This here is Castilla.” See what I mean?

24 Hours in La Mancha

January 23, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 6

4:40 p.m.

          “How long have you been living in Madrid?” asked Laura exasperated. “You’re making me want to go back to smoking.”

          “Long enough to know that this is not the way out of the city,” I replied annoyed. “I’ve never even seen these streets before in my life. This is like the goddamn Twilight Zone. Where the hell are we? We’ve been driving around the Complutense for hours. It’s killing my eyes!” Madrid’s largest public university, built largely in the post-war period with the sole purpose, in my humble opinion, of trying to round up the country’s seven worst architects and chain them to a desk until they produced the most hideous collection of functional and utilitarian design ever to be constructed in one place on the planet. Unfortunately for future generations, they achieved their goal, assembling so many eye sores at once, they made state buildings from communist east Europe appear ornate. Almost twee. Nothing about them imbues academic excellence or inspires higher order thinking. One gets the feeling that the masterminds behind the works wanted to equate higher education with living in a basement cell with a lidless toilet. Its only redeeming quality was maybe, and I mean maybe, its open space, which permitted the buildings to be built so far apart, you didn’t have to look at too many and any one time. Rumor has it, Franco wanted this setup so that his tanks could roll in and quell uprisings if the college students got too feisty. God knows he had his chance to blow the whole place to smithereens but didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. So, unfortunately, except for the help of a major seismic catastrophe forcing the state to raze them and start over, there is nothing you can do about it.  

          “Give me the phone,” insisted Laura. “And we’ll use Google maps.” Hearing those words is like sticking a knife in man’s heart. The ultimate emasculator. In today’s high-octane feminine charged society, with all that was fun about being male has been deemed worthy of public scorn, spatial orientation when driving remains one of our last bastions of manhood. Until Google came around.

          “I’m not Ok with that. But if you use it without my consent, I won’t stop you. ‘Cause if I drive by the Medical School building one more time, I’m going to get out and donate my internal organs. I am losing my will to live.”

          I knew how to get through the Complutense to the A-6 highway, mainly because I had assigned several hundred neurons to learning the route by heart, so as to avoid the obvious inconveniences of playing it by ear. But this time, I was trying to get on the M-30 beltway and was making it up as I went, using basically the sun as my only point of reference. There are some signs theoretically pointing you in the right direction, but more often than not, you get the feeling that the Department of Traffic seems to encourage you go it on your own. It’s then when you try to improvise and quickly realize how futile improvising is. 

          “We’re not far at all. Just follow my instructions.”

          “I refuse to. But if you say it out loud, it’s not my fault. Got it?”

          “Got it.”

          “Just promise me you’ll tell me when to turn before we’ve actually passed the street.”

          “Calm down. We’re on vacation, remember? We’re in no rush.”

24 Hours in La Mancha

January 21, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 5

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The Law of Historical Memory, once passed, was off to a solid start until the conservative Partido Popular returned to power in 2011. Then procedures stalled. The new ruling party acknowledged the existence of the law but removed all funding, citing Spain’s ailing economy as the main cause, and effectively bringing progress in this department to a screeching halt. It wouldn’t be until the left-wing parties combined to take over the regional government that there was a renewed effort to execute the law. Cebolla’s time had come, and the long and short of it can be found in the minutes of the town council meeting on the fateful April day in 2017. They met in the usual place, a simple room decorated with practicality in mind. There was a solid wood table aligned in a U-shape filling up much of the space, rose pink curtains flanking the windows, flags representing the region of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain and the European Union in each corner, and in the center a royal blue banner with the Cebolla coat-of-arms stitched on it. The symbols which comprise it are two wolves on the right, next to a fig tree above two crossed keys. Symbols which on the surface are so unrelated, you’d think we were looking at a rebus.

          The debate started with some remarks made by the opposition party, which I assume was the Partido Popular, the nation’s center-right party. The speaker, Sr. Doblado Sánchez-Horneros, “wanted to know more about the basis for the changing of the names and wanted to express his concern over the potential problems the proposed changes might cause some of the residents of the town, since some residents will be affected by having to have their home address changed and, in some cases, their business address as well. Sr. Doblado Sánchez-Horneros went on to add that while he understood the reason for three of the new names, as they were the names previously used, he did not see the reason for renaming Calle Jose Antonio to Calle Castillo de Villalba. Why not Calle Santa Ana. That was its original name.”

          The mayor, Silvia Díaz de Fresno, replied that “this subject had been discussed on numerous occasions and that they have to comply with the law, but that they were aware that this might be a problem for some residents and therefore they didn’t regard it as a priority (the fact that they had waited ten years made that clear to me). She added that she personally was not offended by the names but due to the fact there was a formal complaint made by the president of the Protection of Historical Memory, which denounced the existence of a street called José Antonio, it was their duty to obey the law because the law is there to be obeyed. As for the change in names, she agreed…that the choice of names of the three streets to substitute Calle Calvo Sotelo, Calle Gran Canaria and Calle Comandante Sánchez Rubio was obvious because they were the original names of those streets before they had been changed, as indicated in the report prepared by a town clerk, but regarding the change for José Antonio, this is simply a proposal and that if you  (referring to the opposition party) have an alternative which is better, she would be more than happy to discuss it, mainly because this matter was of no special interest to her. She had originally come up with Calle de la Igualdad (Equality Street), because it sounded light and easy, but after discussing it with the town clerk, he suggested using a name associated with the town of Cebolla, but notied that because there already existed a Calle Barriada Santa Ana, the creation of a Calle Santa Ana might be confusing. So they came up with the Castillo de Villalba because the old castle is located within the town limits though many people associate it with (nearby town) of Malpica. That’s why we have these proposals, but if the opposition party can come up with a better choice, they have no problem with looking at it and, if need be, accepting it, because they don’t want to politicize the matter.”

          The bill was passed and the names approved. The changes are as goes:

CURRENT NAME NEW NAME
Calle Calvo Sotelo Calle La Froga
Calle Gran Canaria Calle La Nueva
Calle Antonio Primo de Rivera Calle Castillo de Villalba
Calle Comandante Sánchez Rubio Calle Los Frailes

The opposition party abstained from voting, which is what these groups normally do when they don’t want to vote against progress but aren’t willing to support the other party either.

          The street sign had finally been taken down, but hardly a soul seemed to care, except for the neighbor whose sleep had been disturbed. In towns like Cebolla the whims of political parties don’t impact their world very much. They have other pressing matters to tend to, like annual crop yield, rampant unemployment and urban flight. These are communities which on the outside seem impervious to the fast-paced world of the major cities, and to an extent they are. Cebolla rarely grabs national attention because one gets the feeling that hardly anything ever changes here. And yet, if you look closely, the outside world has managed to touch this municipality more deeply than one can ever imagine. To such an extent, you’d think you were looking at all of Spain itself.

Six hours later, a pair of visitors was racing towards the heart of this town at blistering speed unaware of the events which had transpired that very morning. Their lives would never be the same again.

24 Hours in La Mancha

January 18, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 4

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Back in Cebolla, there were four street names that were under scrutiny. One was Calle Calvo Sotelo, in honor of José Calvo Sotelo, a right-wing politician whose greatest contribution to posterity in his life was undoubtedly his death in 1936. A conservative monarchist who advocated a return of the royal family to preside over the turbulent years that led up to the Spanish Civil War, Calvo Sotelo (in Spain they often go by their last two names) was considered to be one of the leading voices of his day. He wasn’t bashful about his opinions either, expressing on more than one occasion that if the government could not establish order in the streets, the army should. There are clearly more democratic ways of conveying popular discontent with an administration’s performance, but this proposal actually coincided with an age-old tradition in Spain to simply remove a government by force when things didn’t go well. As you would expect, advocating a military intervention tends to polarize any nation. Those in support of his vow to “Make Spain Great Again” looked favorably upon his hardline approach, and he began to attract a greater following. Those against his views, regarded him with plenty of fear and loathing.

          Calvo Sotelo’s soaring career was cut short rather abruptly by a bullet that came to a stop in his head. In July of 1936, tensions in Spain were as high as they had even been in decades. Five years after the monarchy had been ousted in a referendum, the fledgling Second Republic teeter-tottered as it struggled to find a balance in the dizzying ideological scenario of the day. The political right was outraged by the loss of traditional Spanish values; the Church was incensed by the growing numbers of atheists; the socialists were irked with the Church; the communists miffed about the socialists; and the anarchists were pissed off with just about everyone. And if you add to that the disgruntled nationalists from three different regions (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) who wanted to separate all the together, who had a cocktail christened “chaos”. That very summer, the nation was on the verge of falling apart and would, in fact, begin to disintegrate before the month was out. But first, events would have occur to set the explosive situation off.

          On July 13, a group of soldiers detained Calvo Sotelo at his home and, in an act of cold-blooded revenge for the murder of a pro-government officer José Castillo just hours before, stuck him in the back of a truck, shot him and dumped his cooling body next to a cemetery which, if you think about it, was a kind of bizarre gesture of humanitarian consideration on the murderers’ part given the circumstances.

          There is debate as to whether the captors intended on doing him in or if it was just a major fuck-up. Research into the matter suggests that the latter seems the more likely. But if it was just a mistake, it was real doozy. His assassination did not cause the Spanish Civil War, but it is safe to say it effectively cemented a collision course which had been long in the making. For those unfamiliar with Spanish history, this was the “Archduke Ferdinand killing moment” of the Spanish conflict. The act the triggered the tragedy. Calvo Sotelo became an instant martyr for the fascist cause. His death ignited anger throughout the country, and undermined the credibility of the government, which was already quickly losing its grip on law and order. What’s worse, it persuaded a general who had been banished to the Canary Islands –I guess there are worse places they could send– by the name of Francisco Franco to become more pro-active. Apparently, he had had second thoughts about the uprising, mainly because he didn’t want to get hanged by his balls if it failed. With the situation spiraling out of control, he made up his mind that it was time to join the coup. Four days days later he was on a plane heading for Morocco to take charge of the seasoned legionnaires of the Africa army stationed in that Spanish protectorate and lead them in the crossing to mainland Spain. Calvo Sotelo had become a martyr. It was only fitting his memory be perpetuated in the streets of Castile.

          Another street in question was named Gran Canaria, after the third largest island of the Canaries. It’s a beautiful volcanic landmass and a haven for vacationers from around the world. Why was this seemingly innocuous reference to a pretty tropical isle so offensive to the sensitive Spanish ear? Maybe we should be asking, what such a place is doing being honored in a small, unassuming Spanish town to begin with. The connection is obvious once history comes into play. Franco, as we know, had not been sent to the Canary Islands to catch up on a little R&R for a job well done, but rather had been reassigned to the archipelago by the Spanish government because they saw him as a threat to the nation’s legitimate constitution. Time would prove they were right to feel that way. They just came up short in their efforts to prevent what know seems to be the inevitable.

          Then there was Calle Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera in honor of another major figure during that period. Son of the former dictator of Spain Miguel Primo de Rivera (yes, there has been more than one), he went on to found Spain’s version of the fascist party, known as el Falange. When war broke out in 1936, he was put in jail cell in Alicante, officially serving a sentence for possession of firearms. He was later tried for rebellion, even though he was in the slammer when the uprising started, condemned to death and shot on November, 20, 1936, the same day Franco would pass away 39 years later. He is currently buried in the basilica of the Valley of the Fallen near the El Escorial, in the province of Madrid, basically next to the caudillo. While José Antonio’s mausoleum-mate may soon be expelled from the grounds, he has been allowed to stay as a true victim of the war. His body will be taken from the altar and re-interred in a less privileged spot.  

          And finally you have Comandante Sánchez Rubio, a figure so unknown no one seems to even recall even his first name. He was just a soldier from Cebolla who happened to be stationed in Cebolla when Franco’s forces took over. Honored in his day as a local hero, he was on the black list for being on the wrong side at the wrong time. So, tough luck; he’s out!

24 Hours in La Mancha

January 15, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 3

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What in the name of Sam’s hell was going on? The law, that’s what. Implementing the law, more like it. On April 27, 2017, a full fifteen months before the early morning skirmish of Calle Comandante Sanchez Ruiz, as it has been come to be known, a meeting of the Cebolla town council was held to address the matter of changing the names of several streets in the town in accordance with the Law of Historical Memory, a controversial piece of legislation which had been passed by the Spanish National Parliament a full ten years before in 2007. The Law of Historical Memory has been one of the most hotly debated decrees in recent Spanish memory, as is anything having to do with the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. It was passed with the hope of bringing closure to a very painful time in this country’s recent past; it may have just opened the wounds further.

          For some Spaniards, though, closure had already occurred decades before when the Generalissimo died on November 20, 1975. The ensuing period of switching from a repressive dictatorship to a democracy under the format of a constitutional monarchy (known as La Transición in Spanish) played out without too much trouble. I say this with a large degree of hesitation, but let me explain. Those involved in the Transición look upon the achievement with pride. The image one has of those years is that of a peaceful and level-headed process, where sanity superseded visceral emotion, where pragmatism outdid revenge. And it’s fairly accurate in the sense that the country did not implode or rewind back to the explosive days of the 1930s. Society more or less cohered. But goodwill and pleasantries were not across the board by any means. Terrorist attacks by numerous separatist and Marxist groups inflicted hundreds of deaths and thousands of wounded. And you can’t ignore the fact that parts of the most conservative sections of the armed forces attempted to overthrow a legitimately elected government in 1981. By no means was it perfect sailing, but the Spanish seemingly pulled it off.

          How was it done? First of all, it wasn’t easy. You see, having your government run by a fascist dictator for 36 years is a stain on any country’s resume, but to help with the healing process, a Pact of Forgetting was agreed upon in 1975 by parties and factions on both sides of the political spectrum so as not to stir up unpleasant memories of the past. The feeling was that by not addressing the horrors of the past and not demanding anyone own up for their wrong deeds, the nation could focus on caulking the fissures and bringing about a smooth transition. This unofficial deal was institutionalized two years later with the Law of Amnesty of 1977, by which the parliament formally released any and all political prisoners, deleted their police records, and banned criminal procedures against anyone from that period, regardless of which side they were on. Basically, the idea was to erase the board and reset.

          The political far right was game for the idea. Who wouldn’t want to be criminally responsible for tens of thousands of human rights violations and get away with it scot free? The political left earned a reputation for acting with extreme generosity and uncommon understanding. Having achieved that, everyone leaders then got together to create a new framework for Spain’s future. All sides sculpted a well-thought-out constitution, restored democracy and got on to being just another stable Western European country, with great museums, terrific vacation spots, an unmatchable historical heritage, outstanding cuisine, annual entries at the Eurovision Song Contest, and to top it off, a World Cup soccer title in 2010. What more could a European country ask for?

          Meanwhile, reminders from the past were slowly but surely being plucked away from visibility. Between 1980 and 2000, statues, signs, monuments which had in any way honored the Franco period had been retired from public view, many times under the cover of the night to avoid confrontation. Streets were renamed, as were squares, fountains and other landmarks. Plaques were unscrewed and pried off building walls, paintings and pictures sent to the basement or just tossed all together. The cleansing was fairly comprehensive, but far from complete, especially in the small towns, where the vestiges proved more resilient. Was enough, enough, or was a more thorough job required?

          In 2007, the Socialist Party, under Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, decided to propose a bill to deal with a number of issues associated with the sensitive past which had not been fully addressed. These went beyond just unhinging a bust or rechristening a lane. They also included financing the locating, identifying and exhumation of bodies buried in many of the countless number of common graves that littered the country, where the remains of an untold number of victims of the war lay. The most high-profile controversy was the mother of all disinterments, that of Franco’s body from the Valle de los Caídos Basilica (The Valley of the Fallen). The Franco-period church-monument-monastery built in honor of all victims of the Spanish Civil War, was never meant for the caudillo himself to be there in the first place, as he was not a victim of the war. He personally asked not to. But that is precisely where he ended up. The result was predictable, since the landmark acquired a kind of pilgrimage status for those who yearned for the days when you good suppress your opponents instead of rely on democratic voting. And while participation in these tributes has waned since the first few years, the fact remains, the old dictator still occupies a place of honor in the side of a mountain twenty-five miles from Madrid. 44 years later, left-wing parties are in the midst of a legal dispute with the Franco family, as they dispute where his final resting place will be. He’ll probably go, but when and where is a mystery.

          The Spanish Civil War and Francoism still hold a firm grip on the psyche of parts of this society, even though many citizens are hopelessly unaware of it. In fact, the two Spains that historians often refer two have their origins in conflicts that hark back to the 19th Century, but it’s the war “la Guerra” that continues to be most relevant to them.

          It may be tempting to say that bickering over events that occurred 40, 50, 60, 70 and up to 80 years ago is absurd, but it’s a more complex issue and more widespread phenomenon than people think. Some Americans, for example, are still coming to terms with visible reminders of their very own civil war. They may wrestle to recall the name of a general or a battle or even forget which century the conflagration took place, but that doesn’t matter. There are matters left unresolved, they’ll say. Just in the past few years, statues have been toppled and flags taken down, and crowds still fill the streets on occasion to protest the commemoration of former Confederate soldiers and leaders. Mind you, we are talking about an event that took place 150 years ago. So, it’s not really for us to judge others, which is a shame, because judging others is one of my favorite pastimes.

24 Hours in La Mancha

January 10, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 2

A couple of workers from the town maintenance department lumbered out of the vehicle and hauled their tools and a ladder to the corner of the street where the main square began. They lit cigarettes, exchanged a few instructions, aligned the ladder with its destination ten feet above and prepared for action. One climbed up to their desired height, produced a chisel from his pocket with one hand, grabbed a mallet which had been dangling from his hammer loop with the other, lined the two up and started chipping away at the edges of a colorful Talavera design ceramic plaque which indicated, before it was removed, the name the street had been known by for the previous 75 years: Calle Comandante Sanchez Ruiz. It was a tremendously long title for an extraordinarily short road, in honor of an immensely anonymous character from some forsaken annal of time. Mr. Sanchez was getting the boot, and some locals felt it was about time. Most, though, could not have given a crap.

          The nerve-racking echo of repeated knocking on a solid wall would have spurred even the most staid individual to rise from their bed and investigate. David, the neighbor whose home the plaque was lodged in, just happened to be one of those individuals. He emerged from the iron door outside his patio wearing only a summer robe (and we can assume something underneath) and slippers. He assessed the situation carefully. Though not necessarily as stable a person as he would like to be until he had his first cup of coffee, he felt he could manage the matter and avoid victims at the same time. He was also the proud owner of several hunting weapons, knew how to use them effectively and was quoted as saying once, after an evening of several gin & tonics served in glasses the size of vases, “Everyone should know what it feels like to be hunted down at least once in thier life. It builds character.”

          Without alcohol running through his veins, David was a decidedly less swashbuckling person. As a first course of action, he folded his arms and affected a long, determined glare of disapproval, which he planned on maintaining until one of the two looked in his direction and picked up on the gravity of the situation. But the workers pounded away and did not even acknowledge his presence at first, basically because they didn’t see him. The slight prompted him to adopt a new more aggressive approach. Within seconds he came up with a line he was sure would grab their attention and convey disdain at the same time, “Buenos días.”

          It lacked in creativity but you can’t say it didn’t achieve the desired effect. The man up top stopped hammering. Both he and his colleague looked in the direction of the morning salutation, where David had gone back to his pose of displeasure. They returned the greeting, “Buenos días,” nodded, and continued with the dismantling.

          David sensed that a peaceful resolution was going to be harder than he thought, but he was convinced he could cope. Thanks to the Mindfulness courses that he had taken when he was laid off two years before, he had learned to manage tense situations without, what people close to him described as, “going berserk”. He himself wasn’t armed, but the town employee, the worker in charge of removing the inscription, wielded a tool so imposing that would have passed for a battle mace, meaning that should things take a turn for the worse, he was at an immediate disadvantage. David realized he had nothing to defend himself with, but recalled that he was wearing slippers and that they might serve as a potential flying defense mechanism to divert their attention, should the need arrive. It would probably stun them just enough to give him time to scramble back inside his house and lock the door. The sensible thing to do, though, his Mindfulness coach had instructed him, was to bring tensions down a notch or two. So he shouted at the worker from a comfortable distance. “Is it really necessary for you to be doing this at this time of day?”

          “It is.” replied the worker on the ladder. “What do you want me to do about it?”

          “I want you to leave and come back when normal humans work. That’s what I want. It’s eight o’clock in the morning! Can’t a person get some rest around here?”

          “Of course they can. But that’s not the issue here. Do you always react this way to these situations?”

          “What do you mean, that’s not the issue? What are you, a psychologist?” Given the current unemployment rate of 17%, it was entirely possible. “This is simply not right.”

          “Do you hear that, Quique?” he addressed his coworker who was holding the base of the ladder and pretending to keep him safe. “We have a protestor here. An indignado.” The worker stepped down from his place up top and began to advance towards David, who glanced at his foot and wondered if he’d have time to snag the slipper and whip it in the aggressor’s direction. But the town employee paused to put down the mallet, mainly because it was too heavy, and inadvertently gave David the impression that he was a man of peace. “Look. I’m just doing my job. Is that a lot to ask?”

          “At this time of day, you bet it is. Come back later.”

          “Come back later, or what?”

          The ensuing minutes broke down, according the version reported to me, into an exchange of opposing views where each side had no hope of convincing the other and yet had no intention of being convinced. So they just insulted each other relentlessly until they had their fill. David, who in a matter of seconds had abandoned the counseling of his Mindfulness coach, finally suggested that the worker do something creative with the chisel, while his opponent recommended that if he had a problem the man go to the town hall and take it up there. That’s how they left it off. As is usual in these cases, there was much more bark than bite.

          David went back inside and vented his frustration by immediately taking a shower and scrubbing his head extra hard with shampoo, and the workers, riled by the altercation, decided they needed to take a break to calm down and sauntered over to a café on the other side of the square. The street sign no longer bore the name of the Commander, and only the top left corner where the town seal was exhibited remained. It isn’t clear if this was done out of respect for town property or because they forgot to finish the job, but the fact is, the emblem has been left untouched ever since.

24 Hours in La Mancha,Uncategorized

January 9, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 1

8:06 a.m.

In a place of La Mancha, whose name is not easily forgotten, on the morning of August 14, something historic took place. The events unfolded just beyond the crack of dawn, an ungodly hour for the middle of the summer holidays especially when an insistent heat wave, now into its third week, was battering the country with record high temperatures. The vegetation shriveled at frightening rates and turned the countryside into a mix of humbled colors that ranged from parched khaki to deathbed brown. After such an extended stretch of punch after punch of punishing heat, the thermometers no longer had the will to cool off at night, except for maybe between five and seven in the morning when near imperceptible variations might insinuate the sensation of descent. That fact, combined with the incessant shouting and laughing of the young people who hung out in the main square every night until three in the morning, made rest not only a challenge to the even soundest sleeper, it sometimes made it an absolute impossibility.

To add to the difficulty, members of the town’s public sanitation department come out in force first thing every day to perform a task which can only be likened to a battery of convicts laying down gravel with hydraulic equipment. It’s the town street cleaners and waste management teams making their way through the narrow streets with one purpose in mind: wiping up the carelessly strewn remains of the previous day. Their target was trash, and removing it at unreasonable hours is a widespread scourge that has tormented the dreamers of this country for years. Despite the obvious inconvenience associated with this activity, it is immensely popular among public officials everywhere. The local governments will tell you that the system allows them to freely sanitize the city while their citizens rest, but I am here to attest to the fact that it’s really actually proof of their immense sense of humor; the supposed beneficiaries of the service, meaning us, are jolted awake to a commotion which, when it catches you with the windows open, can seem seismic in dimension. Nothing about the noise they make appears in any way related to the improvement of urban hygiene. Quite the contrary. Yet by the time the townspeople awake and are on the run, the pavement is damp and spotless and ready to be soiled again.

On this day, though, a second unexpected pair of intruders came upon the scene and set up shop. Their intent was completely different and the time they expected to hang around extended beyond what people would consider to be common courtesy. But what did that matter? History was in the making, I tell you. And in the town of Cebolla, located on the western end of the province of Toledo, of the autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha, run-ins with posterity don’t come along very often. In fact, they are pretty goddamn rare.