Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 14

5:45 p.m.

We had a cup of coffee to kick off the evening. And then we planned.

          “We should probably do something,” I suggested convinced I had seen and said just about everything a person could about an eggplant.

          “Sounds good,” agreed Fernando. “But with this heat, there is only one thing I can think of. We should probably go swimming. Or at least go for a swim. It’s not the same you know.”

          “Oh, I could go for that!” seconded Laura as she caressed a tomato.

          “But first let’s get the car in the car port before it gets swiped,” warned Fernando with a wink.

          I was told I could leave the car outside but that it was better off in a neighbor’s garage. Would the neighbor mind? Of course, not. The neighbor was dead. The house was no longer occupied, but the car park was still available and perfect for keeping vehicles off the street.

          “If you say so,” I replied.

          “I do,” said Fernando.

          I backed up the recently deleted Comandante Sánchez Rubio Street, an effortless task since cars were rarely known to traverse it, did a two-point turn and maneuvered the vehicle until it was lined up perpendicularly with the entrance. All that was needed now was for someone to open the door, so I put the car into neutral and called out to Laura. “OK. I’m ready! Can you open the door?”

          “Why are you shouting at me? I’m right next to you in the driver’s seat.”

          “Yeah, but it makes me feel more macho when I bark out commands.” When I leave Madrid, I always feel a little inadequate in the masculinity department. People out in the country seem to work so hard. They enjoy hauling sacks around and often flaunt it in my presence. My heaviest load is usually no more cumbersome than a stack of final exams. I couldn’t quite share that kind of experience with individuals who heave bales of hay and handle scythes with dexterity, and expect them to respect me. It’s as if I needed to uproot a tree or something.

          “So making me get out and open the door in 110º heat is your idea of feeling macho?”

          “Someone needs to tame this 125-horse-power death machine.” I pressed down on the accelerator of my economy-size vehicle.

          “Bless your heart. So much for chivalry.” She tugged at the latch with a jerk and exited.

          “Can you handle the garage door?” I called out.

          “Oh, yeah. I hope so,” she replied facetiously. “I’ve been opening doors for a few years now. I should be all right. I’ll let you know if I need some assistance.”

          “You’d be surprised. Some of them can be real bitches.”

          Spain is considered one of the safest places on earth to live in. It routinely appears in the upper tiers in the world rankings of crime-free indexes, well ahead of nations which most people might, off the top of their heads, consider to be havens for scelerophobics, or people who have a fear of crime. These include Norway, Belgium and Ireland and other places where people tend to drink a lot but otherwise mind their own business.

          The welcome news from the crime reports is especially true of violent offences, the kind I like to be aware of before I decide to reside permanently in any place. According to a 2017 report, Spain was listed second lowest in homicides in Europe, just above Austria, and well below the EU average, which is pretty darn low itself, and a far cry from the numbers they rack up in countries like the United States, where the murder rate is five times worse. America always gets a bad rap for its astronomical killing statistics, and with an average of 15,000 homicides a year, we can safely say the stigma is reasonably justified. In contrast, it’s Europe touts itself as the global pacifist. Is it me, or am I the only one who has paused at least once in life to see the irony in it all? I mean, after Europe nearly wiped out half the human race in two world wars in the 20th Century, can we really say it deserves its reputation for being the paragon of civil behavior? How quickly we forget the loss of 90 million lives. The peoples of the Old Continent may know how to control themselves in traffic jams, post offices and high school proms, but when they do go off, few can hold a candle to them.

          Many traditional elderly Spaniards see things differently and will recall with nostalgia just how good they had it when Franco was alive and the streets were safe. Criminals were wary of exercising their profession in a society where the authorities would not bat an eye when bringing the full weight of the law on them. It appears to be one of the few dubious benefits of living under a police state. Immediately after Franco’s death, though, the country endured several years of crime waves as society’s delinquents enjoyed the freedom of working without the constraints of a dictatorial regime. That meant unfettered felonies and encumbered misdemeanors. Muggings increased, bank robberies flourished. Crooks had a field day until the new democratic system could get a handle on safety. I can personally vouch for the noticeable lack of security in Madrid’s neighborhoods during the 80s and early 90s and found myself victim of a couple of muggings. Nowadays they are rare.

          While the numbers on crime were never that alarming, there was room for improvement and better data came. Dramatically. The murder rate has dropped 43% since 2005 to 292 intentional homicides in 2016. For a country of 46 million people, it’s a reasonably minor figure. Assault and violent theft are also fairly uncommon. Many of the worst violations take place more regularly among groups which are already behaving on the fringe of legality. So, unless you dabble in drug-trafficking, have a tendency to rub the Russian or Armenian mafia the wrong way, mingle with the dregs of society, or pick a fight with a drunken Brit the size of an EasyJet plane, chances are you will be free of any serious harm.

          Property crime is also much lower than it used to be and nothing out of the ordinary for a country this size. For example, whereas 420 people for every 100,000 have been victims of robbery in Spain, in Holland, locked firmly in the first position, 1,400 citizens and visitors report a similar crime annually. And Denmark is almost as bad. I used to think these places were archetypes of crimelessness, but to my stupor, they are actually paradises for burglars. Who would have guessed?

          Despite the encouraging data, the Spanish seem little convinced and continue to busy themselves bolstering their crime prevention measures to a degree that would appear inconsistent with the overall feeling of safety that pervades in this land. In fact, keeping personal possessions free from human intrusion is nearly a national obsession, when not a pastime. Hand the average Spaniard a padlock and their minds dance with delight at all the possible places they can dangle it from. It’s a paranoia so ingrained that when my Spanish friends cross the Atlantic Ocean to visit my country, they are flabbergasted when the see how lax we are in the States about security. Cars are left unlocked and homes are often shockingly easy to access. There is often a hundred ways to get in and the locks are so dinky they could be picked with a cotton swab. If a burglar wanted to get in, they could, it’s as simple as that. Even the dogs can often be cajoled with a box of Fig Newtons. Spaniards, however, often forget the one danger robbers in the U.S. are often confronted with when engaging in their lawless activities: they can and will get shot, and that’s a pretty good deterrent in itself.

          Back in Spain people don’t care for blowing each other away; instead they just fortify their worlds like banks and hope for the best. Properties and other personal assets are often gated, bolted, locked, doubled-locked, padlocked, chained, reinforced, shuttered, fenced off, rigged with alarms, equipped with cameras, lined with barbed wire, walled up and crowned with broken glass incrusted in cement, and then often populated with loud, undernourished and under-loved dogs that let out strident bursts of barking at the slightest encroachment of anything no more menacing than a butterfly. It can be a nerve-racking experience as you walk down the streets of these villages and are assaulted verbally by hounds of all sizes, shapes and vocal chords. They are clearly displeased with their existence and successfully convey their discontentment to each and every passerby.

          Accessing a home can be a challenge even for the owners. I once stayed at a beach apartment where I was required to get by four gates and two doors just to enter the apartment. Not so surprisingly, as I penetrated the environs of my holiday vacation spot, I found myself humming the opening tune of the TV series Get Smart.

          So I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Laura have to take on multiple obstacles in order to get our Toyota into safe harbor. Entering the garage meant unlocking and opening an iron gate and pushing its doors wide open into a folded position; then using a second key to go through a small iron door which allowed you to reach a pin on one end of another larger iron gate, remove it, and slide it across. If you are on your own, you will have to race back to the car, assuming it’s still there, and drive it inside and under the corrugated tin roof to protect it from the punishing sunlight. Luckily enough, I could count on Laura’s adept abilities at breaking and entering, and the procedure was completed without an incident. Once we were out of the car, we locked it, pulled the handle to make sure it couldn’t be broken into, slid the main garage door back, slipped the pin on, exited the small door, turned the key to lock it, unfolded and pushed the iron gates back into position, held the two ends in place and introduce the key quickly to snap it shut. Then came the inevitable, “Oh, shit, I think I left my Tic-Tacs in the car,” or something existential like that.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 13

Figs are a different story all together, as you would expect, and certainly more familiar. They share the same order in their taxonomic rank as the quince, though come from different families. They both have roots, trunks, branches, leaves and fruit, but that’s where the similarities end.

          Figs have been around a long time. And I mean a real long time. They are thought to be the first domesticated plant in human history, cultivated for the first time possibly a thousand years before even wheat was tamed; it’s a place of honor the sector simply does not exploit enough, if you ask me.  Their fruit is recognizable to many Americans in the form of a pasty jam square wrapped in a soft but crumbly cookie known as a Fig Newton. The cakey snack has been around since the 1890s and is remarkable, even today, for its use of real fruit, a particular source of pride for its makers. It also apparently contains enough sugar to run a car, but let’s ignore that. Pot-smoking college students between bong hits will swear by it when they tell you the name of the product was thought up in honor of Sir Isaac Newton to highlight the greatness of the invention, but the theory has been thoroughly debunked as urban legendry. The name for the fig roll actually comes from the town Newton, Massachusetts, chosen for no other reason than that it sounded better than “Fig Cambridge”, where the factory was actually located.

          The original owners of the company have long since stepped aside and let the big names takeover. First came Nabisco, who bought it out, along with just about every other blessed biscuit from America; then Kraft came on the scene and gobbled up Nabisco. That’s the very same Kraft which spent much of the end of the 20th Century wooing the world’s largest tobacco companies, RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris. Together they combined to generate an arsenal of the most toxic habit-producing food and smoking brands civilization has ever known. Few enterprises in history have done so much to poison the human body, and made a killing in the process.

          Nabisco still uses its brand name, but the parent company is no longer known as such; it now goes by a humdrum moniker Snackworks. Kraft has also been rechristened as an even quirkier “Mondeléz International”, and earns on average around 26 billion dollars. It holds about $63 billion in total assets, placing it somewhere around 70th in the rankings of GNP by country. That means its economy is heartier than some 134 nations. It’s a colossal company, to say the least. And yes, Fig Newtons still adorn our supermarket shelves. Their continued popularity is backed by their consistently upbeat annual sales performance.

          While not considered a major world supplier of the fruit, Spain does a respectable job in fig production. It’s currently second in the European Union, after Greece, and ninth overall in the world, producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 tons a year, though crop yield will predictably rise and fall dramatically from season to season. Most of the produce comes from the region of Extremadura to the west, but Cebolla has proven itself an important enclave, which explains the presence of a fig tree on the town seal. Unlike the quince, fresh figs can be and are consumed. Its unprocessed flesh is milky and granular, refreshing on summer evenings, but it’s the dried version which captivates the market, catapulting it to international fame, as well as into our cookies.

          These and other tales of tomatoes, zucchini, basil and lettuce took up our visit to the garden. Then I looked above the top of the stout fig and back at the house; to my right I noticed up on the gables and in the window sills of the decaying palace next door an army of bird predators just waiting to get their beaks into the succulent piece of fruit. The sonic force field supported by the emissions produced by Radio Nacional de España managed to keep the marauders at bay…but only as far as the fringes of the property. I don’t know just how many birds had joined us that evening, but you’d think this was an audition for a Hitchcock film. They waited patiently.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 12

“Ignore him. He just doesn’t like organic food.”

      Laura was right. I didn’t. If only out of loyalty to my 1970s childhood diet of Fruit Loops, whole milk laced with Nestle’s Quik, yodels, double stuff Oreos, Twinkies, Swanson’s TV dinners, cube steak (whatever the hell that was), Rice-a-Roni, Hamburger Helper, frozen vegetables, concentrated fruit of all kinds, MSG-laced everything, and many, many more delicacies of the day. These were the building blocks of our youthful organisms. My generation was nourished on this regime and survived to tell the story. The fact that we aren’t collectively residing in the municipal cemetery is a testament to the strength and malleability of human bodies. We are a marvel to the medical world. And yet, nowadays, the mere mention of a “Pop Tart” can get you removed from anyone’s premises for promoting drug abuse.

          “I think it’s great,” I lied. “Not as much as you. Laura’s so organic she was born in a peapod. But that’s not what I’m saying. I just can’t stand the prices you pay. 5 euros for 250 gram package of chickpea pasta. That doesn’t even sound appetizing. Plus, it’s a chickpea for the love of God. Where does my money go? Not pesticide, that’s for sure.”

          “It’s the future, whether you like it or not,” said Fernando. “So accept it and enjoy.”

          “Legalized larceny is the future? I’m glad I’m over the hill. But just so you know, I’ll try, but I’m making no promises.”

          I focused my attention on reviewing the state of the fruit trees, especially the quince, because a person like me doesn’t often get the chance to regard one for any extended time every day. If you’ve just scratched your head and said to yourself, “What the hell is a ‘quince’?” by no means should you feel alone in your ignorance. It’s not you. It’s the fruit and the fruit’s status. In Spanish, the tree is called “membrillo” and the fruit it bears goes by the same name. I know I had never heard of a quince tree until I got to this country, and up until then I had gone about my life just as happily. It is not very common in Western Europe or America. Most of the fruit is produced in the Middle East, the middle Asian countries and China. But if someone has to carry their weight for Europe, it’s Spain. It leads the pack in the EU, and is tenth in overall world production.

          The quince actually belongs to the rose family and is a distant relative of some of this planet’s most recognizable deciduous produce: apples, peaches, apricots, pears, plums, cherries, strawberries, to name just a few. There is little dainty or delicate about the quince fruit though. You’d think it was Nature’s attempt to grow bowling balls. Collecting it can be a hazardous procedure, too, as it has a nasty habit of detaching itself from the limb and crashing onto the head of anyone who happens to be foolish enough to be loitering underneath. I was one of those unlucky souls one day, and had to be carried unconscious by Laura and three others to safety. I try to play this compromising episode down at dinner parties and other social gatherings.

          It is generally so hard and acidic that you’d probably have to be subjected to a prolonged siege before resorting to eating it raw. If you insist on ingesting it, for the love of god don’t take a bite out of it. First, try boiling it slowly in water and lemon, sweetening it in heaps of sugar then mashing it and molding it into a square brick of granular jelly. Then give it a go. By then, you’ve come up with something more than just palatable, it’s downright delicious. It is known as “dulce de membrillo”. People generally pair it with soft cheese and eat it as a dessert. 

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 11

As we neared the grove, I noticed what sounded like the echo of voices from a radio. At first I thought it was from the neighbor, but then I realized it was coming from underneath one of the fig trees, which is certainly one of the last places I’d ever expected to hear someone engaged in a passionate discussion on Egyptian papyruses over the airwaves. It was just one of a four-pronged defense system to keep the threat of birds away and save the modest harvest without the aid of some good old-fashioned poison. The other three components of the team included a scarecrow, CDs hanging from limbs, and a device that beeped at supposedly regular intervals. I didn’t know what to make of it all, but one thing was for sure, I had the honor of standing before arguably the most fiercely protected fruit in town.

          The scarecrow was a perennial guardian, though ever since its performance in the Wizard of Oz, its effectiveness is forever being called into question; the beeper clearly couldn’t be counted on, as the only thing regular about it was how incredibly irregular it could be, which, now that I think it about it, was perhaps its greatest virtue; and the CDs gave the garden a holistic feel to it, even though no one really knows what the hell “holistic” means. But the radio, now that was a novelty! It was eerie, spooky and disturbing, and it kind of reminded me of those radio hosts in the Korean War who kept telling the American GIs to give up because their wives and girlfriends back home were humping plumbers.

          “Now, that’s a nice touch,” I said, as I listened to a commercial for discounted beach towels. “That really sends a strong message to the enemy.”

          “Freaks the hell out of them,” added Fernando as he gazed out into the distance like a war-scarred colonel.

          “Freaks the hell out of me,” I added. “But is it bio-friendly?”

          “It is, indeed.”

          “I bet the neighbors must love you for it.”

          “Healthy living comes at a cost my friend,” affirmed Fernando. “I’m doing everyone a favor here.”

          “Yeah, but does it work?”

          “It should for a while. Until they figure it out. Birds are smart bastards.”

          “Do you think they will?”

          “They always do. Then I’ll think of something else.”

          “You could always shoot ‘em,” I said. I grew up in a very different and hostile American environment. Suggestions like mine came naturally to me and would have been received almost enthusiastically at home.

          I’m not sure if it unnerved Fernando, but he did pause a few seconds before replying, as if we wanted to know just how to respond to a person who showed early signs of psychopathology. “You could, I guess. It wouldn’t be very environmentally friendly.”

          “Oh, come on. The only poison is lead and it stays in the bird. What more can you ask for?”

          “Well, to begin with, what if you miss? Where does the bullet go?” He had a point. Every year hundreds of people around the world are victims of stray bullets, products of Afghans celebrating weddings with banquets and ballistics, or just idiots like me forgetting some of the basic laws of physics.

          “Into the fields some place miles away. There is no serious risk. There’s a bigger chance of your dying in a car accident than being picked off by a wandering bullet. Plus, I won’t miss. I promise. Just think of how they’ll react. Trust me, Tokyo Rose is driving me nuts.”

          “Nope.”

          “Come on. Your brother would let me. He’s a natural born killer like me.” He was an accountant and he liked slaying wildlife almost as much as he enjoyed balancing budgets.

          “My brother isn’t here.”

          “All right. Have it your way. But don’t say I didn’t warn you when all your figs are gone.” Now that was a sentence I thought I would never utter in my life.

          Laura walked up to Fernando, inserted her arm in his as if they were going to start square-dancing and said smiling, “Don’t listen to him. He’s just jealous.”

          “Don’t listen to me? Don’t listen to her! We’ve been doing the bio-crap for a year and now none of our plants on our balcony have survived. You’d think we were watering them with acid rain. I walk into a florist shop and the plants shiver with fear.”

          “That was mildew that killed them. It happens.”

          “So does genocide, but that doesn’t mean we have to celebrate it. And tell him what happened to your mom’s pineapple tree in her backyard.”

          Fernando looked at Laura intrigued.

          “It was attacked one day by an army of ants.”

          “Attacked? It was stripped to the bone in one night! I swear to God. And I told you. I didn’t know insects were capable of such destruction. So I said, ‘Shoot ‘em. Shoot ‘em!’ But did you listen?”

          Laura laughed again. “How am I supposed to shoot ants?! I don’t have a 100,000 rounds of ammunition lying around.”

          “You don’t need it. Pop off a couple of rounds and you’ll have them scattering for cover. Then you come in with the Raid and finish them off. It’s simple.”

Figs of Steel: 24 hours in La Mancha 10

“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.”

Figs Of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 9

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.

Figs of Steel: 24 hours in La Mancha 8

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.

Figs of Steel: 24 hours in La Mancha 7

       

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?

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.”

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 5

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.