Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for February, 2019

24 Hours in La Mancha

February 20, 2019

Figs Of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 9

Tags:

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

Tags: ,

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

Tags:

       

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?