Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Posts Tagged ‘La Mancha’

24 Hours in La Mancha

May 10, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 14

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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.

24 Hours in La Mancha

March 23, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 11

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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.”

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 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 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.