The very top of Cebolla is on the edge of what seems like an endless plain of farmland broken in the very far distant horizon by the Gredos Mountains. They are a solid and majestic range, often snow-capped even into June. To the left we beheld some of the nicest and most modern homes in town. Some are somewhat standard run-of-mill semi-detached units, but others are quite elegant. Handsome porches; plush gardens; a refreshing pool. A stroll through their streets might give the impression that Cebolla was a community undergoing a period of true bonanza. Wealth and ostentation. Somehow, the hard times Spain had endured the previous years had passed over the town, as if someone had painted a mark of lamb’s blood over every front door. That might have been true for some, but not for most. The harsh reality would be found elsewhere. Not far off at all.
Like Scrooge’s speechless Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Fernando pointed silently to the unfinished remains of a massive Almazara housing development which had been abandoned years ago when the economic bottom fell out. There must have been easily one hundred condos on the cusp of being occupied and owned by excited families hopeful to start a new life. Instead, they had turned into a monolith to disappointment and broken dreams. This went far beyond just letting a few dozen people down. This was pulling the rug underneath nearly half the town and ruining whole lives. It was tantamount to canceling the Olympics two weeks before the opening ceremony and telling athletes who had devoted their lives to preparing for them that they can no longer go. Thanks for your efforts. Screw you. Go sell running shoes at a sports outlet. You just don’t do it. You just don’t do those things. But there are those who do, and we saw the work wrought with our very own eyes.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, the units themselves were nothing to write home about. Sharp, square structures cemented together with millions of bricks, the building material par excellence in that region and American high schools alike. Their design sorely lacked proper illumination, a defect so very rampant in homes in the center of the country. It’s a question of tradition, I reckon. In the past, this made sense when houses could resort to little else when trying to combat the intense summer heat; but in today’s world of air-conditioning, there seems to be no excuse. All that light. All that beauty. Closed out. It was an utter shame. But that wasn’t the point, here. They were homes. I kept thinking about this over and over as we walked around the edges of the complex. Homes for people eager to say were theirs.
Fernando rubbed his belly and scratched his head, which is what he always did when he was overcome with despair. “Doesn’t this just suck! Imagine all those people who got screwed over.”
“It’s just awful,” agreed Laura.
“Where are they now?” I asked.
“Who knows? Some are gone. Others, I couldn’t tell you. These,” he walked up to me so close I could smell his aging breath. “are the people no one talks about. These are the nameless victims. Living people living in a living common grave known as poverty and anonymity. No one cares about them. They don’t give a crap. A living memory of a living history. A living death with no gravestone. Where are the politicians now?”
“How many of these goddamn corpses are there?” I asked.
“Here? Who knows! But in Spain, it runs into the thousands. Tens of thousands. These are all over the country. Not just Cebolla. How many? A lot,” replied Fernando frankly.
A lot, indeed. You see, what we were staring at was not an isolated example of a town paying the price for its own private foolishness. This wasn’t a one-off case of some naïve community suffering the embarrassing consequences of a breakdown in a fragile system bound to crash at any time. This had nothing to do with a local group of greedy individuals with euro symbols in their eyes hoping to make a killing on the real estate market. Nor was it just some gang of regional banks taking advantage of young couples and families who were desirous to call themselves homeowners. It was all of them put together; and not just in Cebolla. It had happened all over the country, spreading like an uncontrolled virus; like the flu of 1918 or the plague of 1348. A virtual scourge. It became known as the Great Spanish Real Estate Bubble, and by the time it reached a breaking point in 2008, it was a humongous but delicate sphere about the size of a planet just waiting to explode. But it’s a far more complex story than just rampant speculation. It’s not just about understanding a crisis. It’s about understanding Spain.
You see, possessing property in Spain is a tradition that goes back a long way, and it became especially popular during the latter years of the Franco dictatorship. The regime promoted home-owning and prices were accessible. Very accessible. I wouldn’t go as far as to say they were giving them away, but they were as close as you could get. Units back then went for 200 euros a square meter, which meant a lovely-sized 150m2 place in downtown Madrid could be acquired for a laughable €30,000. On top of that, the government offered incentives, like tax breaks and subsidies, to encourage private ownership.
It worked. Not only was it possible to buy and own an apartment or house, purchasing more than one was not unthinkable. I can personally vouch for this. I can’t think of a friend in Spain whose parents from that generation didn’t own more than one property. Some were proud proprietors of half a dozen, snatching up a flat in Madrid for their kids, a condo in the Sierra de Madrid, grabbing a beach apartment for next to nothing in order to flee the sweltering summer city heat. And you didn’t have to be a millionaire. A taxi driver might be the owner of two apartments. A fishmonger, three.
The most amazing thing was that, in most cases, families pulled it off on just one salary per household, as many women did not have steady employment and many more were stay-at-home moms. Just how was this possible might you ask? I struggle to put my finger on one sole explanation, but I can think of a number contributing factors, in addition to all the governmental enticements; they mostly have to do with how the Spaniard thought and behaved back then.
First of all, though salaries were lower, life was cheaper too. Schooling and university were practically free; socialized medicine made paying directly for private healthcare an afterthought; supermarket food was (and still is relatively speaking) economical, and people tended not to engage in the intensive social life that they have for the past 30 years. This last point cannot be stressed enough. People worked long hours and for the most part stuck to dining at home and saving money. Utilities like phones and electricity were used with a frugality that would have made Scrooge moan with pleasure. If you left a room, you turned off all the lights. And if you could get by with just one lamp where you were sitting instead three, then all the better. People saved, scrimped, economized and optimized to near OCD levels. It was admirable the way they could expel superfluous waste from their lives; consistent with those who have suffered the hardships of war and post-war scarcity. But kind of sad, too. It never hurt to live it up now and again.
The systematic penny-pinching went on throughout the year, even at times when people generally splurge, like summer vacation. As August rolled around, the height of the holidays, the Spanish would close their shops and offices, jump into their miniature automobiles, regardless of the size of the family, join interminable miles of the worst traffic humanity has managed to bestow upon the lowly vacationer and, in hordes, head for one of two main destinations: the “pueblo” or the “playa”. The former was normally the hometown where one of the spouse’s family was originally from. This could have been just about anywhere, but I have reached the conclusion that for some paranormal reason an inordinate proportion of them came from the province of Avila. I don’t know why, it just happens to be that way.
Hanging out in the pueblo may not have compared to sipping a caipirinha poolside, but it had its enviable advantages, there is no doubt. Accommodations were generally larger and better and, more importantly, free. People stayed in for most meals and costs were often shared with the family who lived there year round. The food was tastier and the nights were cooler. Any special events, like joining in the festivities at the local fiestas, or a dinner at the finest restaurant in town, were often a far cry from what you’d shell out back in the capital. The savings literally ran into the thousands every year. It makes for one damned cheap summer vacation, I can assure you.
Then there were those who substituted it for a beach apartment. Purchasing a place on the coast may sound extravagant, but much less so than one would think. Game shows would give away flats valued at $20,000 in the 80s. And because the consumer’s taste for owning grew more and more insatiable, developers kept building at an insane rate. Today there are so many available that you can practically pick one up at a supermarket cash register next to the power drinks and chewing gum.
Traditionally holiday habits at the beach were no different from how the Spanish conducted themselves at home or in the village, but were in stark contrast to the way foreign visitors’ were used to spending their cash. For the British, Germans, Swedes and the rest of mainly northern Europeans, it was no holds barred when it came to living it up along miles of beach along exotically named shores like the Costa del Sol, the Costa Blanca, and the Costa Brava. They celebrated life in a way they could rarely do back home, a habit that has carried on to this day.
Many holiday-makers are families enjoying the most of their break through plenty of harmless fun in the sun. This includes swimming and tanning, mixed in with low-cost shopping and easy dinners at friendly pizzerias or tapas bars, and capped off with a little flamenco music before retiring. But other visitors have plans in mind that are decidedly more hedonistic in nature. Activities that fall into this category include: extended meals out, drenched with liters of Spain’s seemingly endless supply of beer, wine and sangria; late night clubbing ‘til dawn; passing out on anything that supports your weight and engaging in different forms of extreme raging like leaping from balconies into a pool below. Resort towns like Magaluz, on the island of Mallorca, have earned a dubious reputation for allowing, almost fostering, unfettered moral conduct. It brings in plenty of cash, mind you, but a good deal of trash too, not to mention your fair share of tragedies. Google “Brit killed in Spain” and chances are some recent item of news within the last month will satisfy your search, and usually in a way related to boneheaded behavior.
Decades ago, this conduct was associated almost exclusively with foreigners, while Spanish families continued their parsimonious ways. They ate all their meals at home, and if they spent a day at the beach, they would pack sandwiches, beer and fruit for a sandy midday lunch by the water. On special occasions, they might indulge in a paella at a chiringuito, wash it down with the house wine and gaseosa, or order a Rioja if they were going all out. Evenings featured turning the lights off to a minimum, opening the windows to encourage a draft, complaining about the heat and the mosquitos, batting hand fans, sitting in front of the blue hue of the TV and watching variety shows or track and field championships, playing cards or Parcheesi on the terrace table or going for a stroll along the boardwalk and getting an ice cream at one of those seasonal plastic kiosks.
And that was about it. Families had invested enough in the apartment. The rest was business as usual. Kids were told they should be lucky they had a place to go to in the summer. And kids of all ages understood that. They splashed and screamed in the water, patted down their sand castles, buried their siblings up to the neck, hunted for crabs, snorkeled around the coves, kicked around the soccer ball, hung out with their gang of summer friends, fell in love, and worried little about anything else.
But it was this very same generation of youngsters who, once grown up, no longer shared their parents’ liking for austerity. They liked the idea of owning property, but they were also keen on enjoying the coast the way the foreigners did. Unfortunately for them, the world was changing.
The first sign of trouble came in the late 1980s when housing prices increased notably. Far faster and higher than the economy could keep up with. The asking prices tapered off during the Spanish recession of the early 1990s, but then the real big hike kicked in almost immediately afterwards, between 1996 and 2007. During this eleven-year period, the cost of a humble abode in Spain utterly skyrocketed. Apartments that had gone for €120,000 in 1995 were being signed away for €600,000 12 years later, just months before the markets crashed. Yes, that’s a 400% mark up. Salaries, as you can imagine, didn’t even come close to that, and the switch in 2001 from the peseta to the euro raised the standard of living even higher. Suddenly becoming a homeowner, despite two incomes, was looking like a near insurmountable challenge. But since the new generations wanted to emulate at all cost what their parents had done, they had to find a way to finance their dreams…at all cost.
That’s when the banks got in on the fun, and made things worse. A lot worse.
In order for families to take on overpriced properties with underpaid jobs, huge amounts of money had to be dished out, often with nothing down, and for horrifically long-term loans, some reaching 30, 40 and up to 50 years in duration. Do the words “indentured servitude” come to mind? In some cases, the mortgages were gobbling up to 50% of a household’s monthly income by the first day of the month. They practically imprisoned people financially. Common sense dictates that no sane person would take such risks, but the Spanish’s need to own a home was so deeply ingrained in their psyche that people took the dive and hoped for the best, which, of course, did not come. In fact, the exact opposite entered the scene.
On top of that, consumer habits changed radically in Spain. Saving, never an easy thing, became next to impossible as the Spanish ate and drank out more than ever, and spent bundles on lavish vacations, expensive electronics and ever-fancier cars. Should times get hard, what would be left to tide people over?
Then came greed. Many individuals started investing in up-and-coming properties for speculative reasons. Flipping, in short. Property developers were more than happy to provide the goods for the voracious appetite to buy and sell and make a quick buck, so they started ripping up land all over the country and building condos and communities at a frightening speed. Immigrants from developing countries flocked to Spain to accept the menial construction work that no one here wanted. All this unbridled construction led to a boost of employment and, as a result, cranked up Spain’s economy to a dizzying pace. At one point, GDP growth stood at nearly an astounding 6%. The country was enjoying a degree of prosperity it had not known since its return to democracy. “¡España va bien!” was Prime Minister José María Aznar’s catch phrase during his eight-year tenure. Spain is doing great.
But there was another catch: the economy had swelled thanks to the good fortunes of one very volatile sector that was sustained by tens of thousands of workers whose employment situation could not have been more precarious, and was financed with a ton of money no one really had. And all to build and sell units no one really needed or had any intention of buying. Spain had added some 5 million units to its arsenal of real estate between 2003 and 2007, a delirious increment that translated into more homes than Germany, Italy and the UK combined. I’ll leave the ensuing disaster for you to envision. All it would take was for something to go wrong and the house of cards would tumble to the ground. That something took place in the fall of 2007 on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in a place called Wall Street.
Though things began to fall apart very quickly with the stock markets, Spain continued with the delusion that it would somehow resist collapse, unable to accept the impending catastrophe that awaited it. It took about a year for the true effects to be felt, but once they came, they proved devastating. By 2013, housing prices had plummeted by an average of 37%, and in the areas with less demand, even more. Spain still leads all Eurozone nations with unoccupied units, over 3.4 million (at least) are vacant. And that’s not counting the ones that were half-finished, or nearly completed, like the forlorn Almazara Apartment complex of Cebolla.
The developer of the Almazara homes, I might add, was so up the yin-yang in debt, rumor has it he basically had to flee before they lynched him. He had already been working on his own home, a fancy three-story corner building in the center of town. It’s been rotting ever since. On the plywood board of the first floor window is another slice of memorable poetry in the form of graffiti that in a word sums up how much he is missed: ¡¡¡ADIO$!!!
7:15 Death and Dying
We hung out to dry the towel with care on a clothes line in the patio. With the extreme heat and the low humidity, most homes don’t bother with a machine dryer. The climate does it for you and for a lot less, as long as the government doesn’t concoct a way of coming up with a tax. While I tended to the clothes, I listened to the local radio blare out over the garden, giving tips on how to keep holiday beach homes sand-free. That kind of radio talk, I thought, most certainly would discourage birds from feasting on the fruit. So, relieved to know that the food was safe from flying vermin, we sat down at the table for an evening beer and a chance to plan the rest of the day. The craft beer fad that had taken the world with money to spare by storm had now established itself firmly in Spain. Just about everyone I knew with five gallons of water on hand, a boiler and a handful of hops lying about had suddenly become a master brewer.
“Try my new beer! Try my new beer!” It was so annoying. I’m surprised I haven’t keeled over from alcohol poisoning by now. On really hot days, I still preferred the mass-produced Madrid brew, Mahou, served ice cold. Most people from outside of Spain have never heard of it, and yet ironically it is the most widely sold lager in the country. Mahou (pronounced as in Chairman “Mao”) comprises about a third of all the beer consumed. The national total is around 40 million hectoliters, or about 8.5 billion pints of beer. That’s a 177 pints for every man, woman, child and infant. We should probably throw in the dogs too. And this is a wine-producing country, mind you. Drinking is big business, needless to say.
After that advertising spot for which I will receive no remuneration, let’s move on. As Victoria sprayed down the terrace floor with water and cooled the air, we looked at our options for next couple of hours. Basically two came to mind: stay home and continue to drink beer or walk around the town to see what’s up. The former was tempting, but the latter was what we wanted to do. Cebolla may not have the stunning beauty of places like Santillana del Mar, Medinaceli, Urueña, Pedraza, Vejer de la Frontera, Albarracín, Morella, Ribadeo, Alberca, Viana, Ronda, Besalú, or Cudillero, to name just a few, but nor did a lot of places in Spain. In Cebolla’s case, other than its curious name, there is very little that would lure a visitor in from a strictly touristic point-of-view. It doesn’t take a seasoned traveler to reach this conclusion; the locals themselves will tell you the same. “Pero no hay nada aquí!”
But in the end, that is exactly why I am inextricably drawn to them. I have a soft spot for them. Their plainness, their ordinariness, their thrill-less, frill-less world. Their quiet desperation. Small town life. It is what most places in Spain tend to be like. It’s what most places in the world tend to be like. Everyday worlds. Everyday living. Towns like Cebolla have managed to survive every major period in Spain’s history since the days the Emperor Hadrian –who happened to be from Spain, I’ll have you know. Didn’t that fact in itself make them deserving of our greatest respect and admiration? Well, that depended mainly on the weather.
“I don’t know.” I pondered for a second. “Naw. It’s too hot. I think we should hang out.”
“Come on!” urged Laura. “It’ll be fun.”
“Honey, your understanding of what defines entertainment never ceases to amaze me. I don’t get a kick out of heatstroke.”
“And your ability to sit on your butt for extended periods of time never ceases to amaze science. I thought you loved the Deep Spain?”
“I do, but not in the deep heat.”
She took my beer away and poured it down the sink. “We’re going. It’s decided.” Well, that battle was lost.
“I don’t want to cause a rift,” intervened Fernando. “You can take it out to the pillory, if you’d like.” The pillory, or picota, as it is known in Spanish, was a large stone column usually placed in the center of town to exhibit punished individuals and, in passing, give the locals a taste of just what the full force of the law is capable of doing when it put its mind to it. In other words, in addition to showing off dangling bodies and rotting limbs, it also served as a deterrent for future crimes. Saying you had a pillory in your town was a major status symbol statement. That also may explain its phallic shape. Nowadays your town can do the same by opening a high-profile museum or hosting a tennis tournament, but back then, owning a granite post for public sanctioning did the talking.
As one of the few surviving historic monuments adorning the town, the elders have gone to great lengths to preserve it. They just can’t think of the ideal place to put it, so it gets moved around every now and again. Currently it’s located on the side of one of the roads that lead out of town, where no one will ever notice it again. Someone, I tell you, needs to get into the tourist board and shake things up a bit.
Anyhow, despite Fernando’s suggestion, I figured the dispute could be settled peacefully at home, so I replied.
“Not necessary. I guess we can go around and catch up on the latest.”
“There’s no such thing as the latest here,” chuckled Victoria. “But you go ahead. I have to stop in my niece’s house; don’t worry, dinner is ready, so when you come back, we can eat.” True to the standards of most Spanish mothers, the meal had been prepared hours in advance and was on standby for consumption at the snap of a finger.
We walked out the door and looked around. Life began to stir in the pretty main square. Young kids gathered, hung out, hovered over smartphones, joshed and giggled. The youngest ones booted around a soccer ball, using the low wall that formed the periphery of the square as the boundaries of the pitch. The older ones shared Instagram pictures and videos and remarked on whatever was going on in their world. An older couple melded into a bench and quietly observed. Three retired couples had picked up a game of petanca (bocce ball) on the other side. The town was emerging and gearing up for the night, the same way every town in Spain was doing at that very moment.
“You see that?” Fernando pointed to the damaged street sign high up on the wall in front of us. “What do you think of that?”
“Vandalism,” I replied.
“Nope. That’s history in the making. And it happened today. On this very day.” He went on to tell us about the now infamous Battle of the Law of the Historic Memory and the fall of one of the last symbols of Francoism in a tiny, forgotten street of La Mancha. He provided some details about the skirmish that morning between David and the workers, though doubtfully with the same intensity as the events themselves transpired. When he finished recounting the tale, he summed up with a “Now, don’t tell me nothing happens here.”
“But you’re the one who always says that!”
“But now we know I’m wrong!”
“You’ve got me there,” I conceded. “Maybe I’ll take a picture of it. I’ll probably just delete it in a few weeks, but what the hell.”
“Let’s take a selfie,” suggested Laura, revealing one of her favorite hobbies.
“You want to take a selfie of a broken street sign?” I asked.
“Of course. It says we were here at a historic moment in this town.”
“It says that we’re bored out of our minds, that’s what it says.”
“She has a point,” said Fernando. “This doesn’t happen often.”
“Well, damn,” I cried out. “Now that we’re at it, why don’t we do a boomerang, or whatever they call it.”
“Honey, you don’t take boomerangs of things that aren’t moving.” She looked at Fernando then back at me with pity. I sensed that would be on the receiving end of that gaze as I get older. “He wants to be with the times but he gets confused about these things.”
“I’m very much on top of what’s in!” I protested. “I have a Google Drive cloud account and everything.”
“If you want, Laura, I can do a surfing pose in front of the sign and sway back and forth. Would that work?” suggested Fernando.
“That would be hysterical!”
“What are you talking about?” I cried. “What does that have to do with the Franco period?”
“It’s conceptual art, my friend. It has nothing to do with it. You decide what it means.”
“Listen,” I balked. “We’ve taken just two steps from the house and I’m ready to go home. There’s a six of beer in the fridge.”
They weren’t listening. Instead they were scrutinizing the picture and laughing with approval. “I have to post it,” said Laura.
“Sounds great!” I agreed impatiently. “Now, can we go? I don’t want to miss anymore historic moments in this town. Apparently, they are a dime a dozen.”
“Lead the way, sir. Lead the way!” He bowed.
“It’s your town. You lead the way.”
We took a left at the corner and headed up the street towards where the church was. The road has earned a degree of fame locally for its steepness, and I can personally assure its veracity. As you climb, there is a sense that you are performing severe penitence before mass. “Fernando, you don’t happen to have a cross,” I asked as I panted. “Just so I can get the full Calvary effect.”
“Nope. But if you want to carry me, I wouldn’t mind.”
Half way, I paused to catch my breath and take a look around. My chest heaved as I looked down the hill to admire the distance we had progressed. At least 150 feet.
It was at that very point that my eyes fell upon a message scrawled on the wall of a house to our right.
“Now, take a look at that.” I was very pleased by my discovery.
I’m a sucker for graffiti. I really am. I get a real kick out of wandering through the streets, especially the towns and villages of this country, and checking out what is going down on the murals and shop shutters. And not just the work of some local Banksy, but rather the everyday Juan García, normal kid, scribbling thoughts with poor penmanship and shaky spelling. They tell us a lot. These used to be local social networks of yesteryear, the ones that shared information before the days of internet. They may not have the impact they used to, but their presence persists. They’re probably the work of mostly young males, posting their opinions on the walls and roll-up shutters on the storefronts. Some want to rebel, others decry injustice; some demand passion, others bemoan unrequited love; some call a neighbor out for screwing them over, others simply engage in primitive trolling; then there are the artists, the creative ones who just can’t seem to find a canvass big enough or a gallery spacious enough to harbor their visualized emotions. All of them live out a longing to be anonymous and visible at the same time.
They can be poetic and creative, but also just plain base. Crude. Short and to the point. Lacking finesse. But it’s their brevity, their terseness, their stark honesty that enthuse me. They are urban haikus. Rural epithets.
I remember one day walking at the edge of a town in the province of Madrid, along an ancient wall separating me and a stunningly beautiful field of wild flowers and shivering white poplar trees with the proud Carpetano Mountains in the background. My eyes suddenly zeroed in on a harsh metal lamppost and spotted a word painted on it. Dried streams of paint slid down the tips of the letters. The paint was not designed for that surface. But there it was in all its glory: “Puta”. A word as isolated as an atoll. Incredible. “Puta” has a whole array of meanings. From “Bitch”, and “Whore” to even an exuberant “Awesome!” or an exasperated “Fuck!” It’s such a versatile word that it’s hard to judge from the context just what the author meant. That’s what good poetry is all about.
As I caught my breath I read this new piece of literature to add to my collection. It was a real jewel:
Mi mejor amiga Lucía
(My best friend, Lucía)
That was the original text, at least. But it wasn’t exactly how it was worded anymore. More recent corrections had been made.
mejor amiga guarra Lucía
best slutty friend Lucía)
Clearly there had been developments in the relationship between the author and subject from the original draft to the revised one. The change of heart not only added depth to the text, it raised a number of questions. Just why, for example, “amiga” was kept in but “Lucía” crossed out is a mystery whose answer I don’t have. Intriguing. Who wouldn’t find this tiny bit of street poetry worthy of a few minutes of observation and analysis?
Pamplona is not the only place in Spain where you can see the running of the bulls. In summer, bulls are chasing brave and crazy people all over Spain! Find out a little more about the the San Fermin fiestas and some other “encierros” on this Spain Domain podcast. Enjoy!
So, if Cebolla’s name comes from Arabic, does that mean the town was founded by the Moors? It certainly would follow, but the fact is, life there goes back much further. Cebolla as a human settlement probably started during the Roman occupation of Spain, known as Hispania at the time. It seems there existed a fairly prosperous villa nearby known as Los Merillos, which was located along a major road between the urban centers of Toletum and Emerita Augusta, today Toledo to Merida respectively. Roman roads were, as Robert Graves put it without a hint of ambiguity, “the greatest monument ever raised to human liberty by a noble and generous people.” Yes, that is, they were both admired and certainly built to last. The current national highway that traverses the zone today is essentially the same thoroughfare.
The newcomers constructed their home near the Tajo River and chose this spot because the land was ideal for farming. It was also during this period that the foundations for what would later become the Castillo de Villalba (Castle of Villalba) were laid. Standing on high ground with an enviable east-west view of their beloved highway below, the fortress made perfect sense from a strategic standpoint. It would be both useful and used for centuries to come.
The Romans stuck around for several hundred years until they eventually relinquished their grip on the Iberian Peninsula. That doesn’t mean, however, that they fully departed; undoubtedly, some may have returned to what was left of their collapsing empire, but it wasn’t as if there was anything back home to look forward to. Indeed, by the end of the 5th Century most were Hispanic-Romans, that is, inhabitants whose roots went back to the Eternal City but who were born and raised in the province of Hispania. These people generally stayed on. The only difference now was that there was no army available to defend them if things turned sour. And, believe me, they would.
The power vacuum that arose in Roman Spain was filled by wave after wave of Germanic tribes. The Alans, Vandals and Suebi were among the first to make themselves at home. It would appear no Barbarian was left behind when it came to invading. Basically, if you were Teutonic and had an itching to occupy a distant land, Hispania was the place for you. Eventually the Visigoths, after being evicted from France by the Franks, muscled out the competition and turned most of the peninsula into their permanent residence, making Toledo their capital.
That meant the power hub of these people was but a stone’s throw from our town of interest, partly explaining why the former village of Aldehuela, now a part of Cebolla, is believed to be of Visigoth origin. It also accounts for the valuable archeological remains from that period unearthed in Los Merillos.
The Visigoths failed to dominate Hispania the way the Romans had (in all fairness, it was a tough act to follow) mainly because their leaders were constantly bogged down with internal fighting and busy staving off assassination attempts, often unsuccessfully. Despite more or less running the show for nearly two hundred years, their historical footprint on this land has often been overlooked, which is odd because they did contribute a couple of extremely important concepts that would have a lasting effect on this country: Catholicism and a primitive attempt at national identity.
Aside from those minor details, Visigoth control was destined to come undone and it ended the day the Muslims invaded in 711 and took over most of what is now present-day Spain and Portugal in pretty much a jiffy. Predictably, the conquest was the result of a civil war between feuding factions among the Goths. Before anyone could do anything about it, the Moors were thrusting into southern France and threatening to swallow up the rest of Western Europe. A veritable blitzkrieg. The only exception to the otherwise utter and complete subjugation at the hands of the Moors was a few enclaves in Asturias and the Basque Country in the north. It was from these tiny pockets of resistance that a slow (and I mean very slow) but steady comeback by Christian forces would be mounted.
In the meantime, the Muslims went virtually unchallenged for what must have seemed like eons. Pleased by the new and fertile land they had conquered, they began to make themselves at home, often occupying existing towns. Just like the Romans and Visigoths before them, the invaders settled in and around the lands of Cebolla, presumably gracing the town with what would become its definitive name. But that wasn’t all: they also provided valuable technological and agricultural knowhow, like hydropower, irrigation, Arabic numerals, math, medicine, improved techniques on leather and steel manufacturing, to name just a few. The contributions were vast and profound.
Unlike other parts of Spain, little physical evidence of their presence can be found in Cebolla, at least above ground. Down below, beneath some of the homes, the town hides tunnels and caverns and ancient wells. And it is generally believed the current church of San Cipriano stands on top of the crushed remains of original structure: a mosque. The Muslims are also said to have reinforced the fortifications the Romans had built centuries before and turned them into the full-fledged castle it is known by today. They too saw the obvious strategic pros of owning a military base from that vantage point.
As the Christian forces licked their wounds up in the impenetrable mountains of Asturias after the crushing defeat by the Moors, they swore vengeance, but making that a reality proved a more daunting task than they could have imagined. Pushing back the Muslims would require several hundred years and a lot of patience to achieve. King Alfonso VI, for example, would not liberate nearby Talavera de la Reina and its surroundings, including Cebolla, until 1083, a whopping 372 years after the Islamic invasion. Toledo, the former capital of the Visigoths and symbolic hub of pre-Islam Spain, was retaken two years later. Clearly, generations of local residents hoping for a swift response from the Christian strike force must have gone to their graves sorely disappointed.
As the Reconquista (Reconquest) progressed, soldiers and inhabitants from the northern kingdoms of Leon, Castile, Aragon and Navarre began to move into the lands further south and either installed themselves in the existing towns or started new ones up all together. The newly arrived became, in effect, the frontiersmen of their day and for several decades were still helplessly susceptible to attacks by their eternal enemies. Little by little, though, the northern kingdoms secured the territories.
The land around Cebolla came under the jurisdiction of the king of Castile, Alfonso VIII, but it fell locally under the protection of the members of the religious military Order of Calatrava in 1205, who occupied the Castillo de Villalba. Excellent timing by anyone’s standard since. Just ten years before, the Christian forces had been taken to the cleaners by a huge army of fierce Almohad Muslims from Morocco in the Battle of Alarcos, in the present-day province of Ciudad Real. It was an embarrassing loss. King Alfonso VIII had sent his cavalry into the heart of the Muslim line of defense. They were following by the king himself, who led the infantry. They initially met success, but the going was slow and the enemy was gradually forming a ring around the Castilians. Soon enough, they were surrounded by the enemy and swarms of arrows rained down on them, forcing them to hack their way out for dear life. It also didn’t help the fact the battle took place in the middle of the day on July 18th, when the insufferable summer La Mancha heat wore them down to mere companies of wilting warriors. You’d think someone would have thought of that before fastening on the armor and slapping the helmet on their head.
Alfonso VIII managed to escape to Toledo, but much of his army had been obliterated. The ragtag remains negotiated its way out of a nearby fortress through the mediation of Alfonso VIII’s enemy, Pedro Fernández de Castro, yes, a fellow Christian and Castilian, who mingled with the Moors to obtain a political advantage over his rival. Such were the complicated twists of the Reconquista period.
With the Christians in the midst of major internal fighting, the orders of knights in tatters, and much of La Mancha exposed, the Moors once again threatened to expel the Castilians from of central Spain. Fortunately for the king, the Muslim leader, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Mansur, failed to capitalize on the victory and returned to Andalusia to recover from his own losses. Nonetheless, many castles and major towns surrendered, including nearby Talavera (and presumably Cebolla), but the big prize, Toledo, held on. For how long, no one knew. The potential for a cataclysm loomed. Should the Muslims return soon, the results could spell disaster for Spain as a whole.
Sixteen years later, which is not a very long time in medieval warfare terms, Mohammed al-Nasir crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to finish the job. He didn’t get very far. At the Battle of Navas de Toloso, in the Andalusian region of Jaen, a consortium of Christian kingdoms, which this time managed to put aside their differences for once and pool together a sizable force to face the invader. This time, Alfonso opted for slyness as a tactic rather than a full-frontal launch, a sensible decision given the fact the Muslims were reported to have three to four times more troops. To do this, he counted on the services of a local shepherd named Martin Alhaja to lead the warriors through the rugged Despeñaperros hills and thus take the enemy by surprise. It worked, and the Spanish forces emerged victorious. For his excellent skills as a local guide, Martin Alhaja, was awarded the title of nobility “Cabeza de Vaca” (Cow’s Head) and his own coat-of-arms. It was an honor and form of compensation which probably requires some historical context to really appreciate because if it had been me, I’d be like, “WTF!”
The Muslims would never again be a serious menace to the La Mancha or most of Spain for that matter.
One of the first reactions you get from a Spaniard when you mention the town “Cebolla” is a look of incredulity, as if you have just confessed that your uncle, the same one who taught you how to play Texas Hold ‘em, is now a drag queen. Cebolla in Spanish means “onion” and to say that you are going to visit a town called “Onion” provokes laughter because most have never heard of it and don’t believe there is a town with a name that reminds them of green salad and bad breath. They chuckle and say, “¡Anda ya! (Yeah, right!)” figuring I’m American and did not hear the name correctly.
I don’t see what all the suspicion was all about. After all, there are quirky names for towns all over the globe. In the United States, you can drive into and order coffee in places like Intercourse, Nimrod, Lick Fork, Ding Dong, Coupon, Embarrass, Experiment, Hell, New Erection, and even Chicken (Alaska) where predictably there is a sign on the outskirts touting “I got laid in Chicken”. And let’s not get started with the British towns, where a traveler can visit and even spend the night in communities like Scratchy Bottom, River Piddle, Cockplay, Brown Willy, Nob End, to name just a lewd few. And it’s not only how it’s called, it’s how the Brits say it. I mean, they have that academic accent of theirs that sounds so official (when not officious) as they announce in all seriousness, “I was born in Twatt, but my mom’s from Upper Twatt.” And they expect me not to laugh.
Spain has its share of witty names too. Places like Guarromán, which sounds like a Spanglish blend for “Dirty Man”, Montamarta (Marta’s a goer), Berga (Cock) or Villapene (Prickville) come to mind. Still, few Spaniards are aware of these amusing toponyms, which is why they just can’t imagine anyone naming their hometown after a bulb.
Knowing my country’s love for idiosyncrasy, I was sure there would be at least one equivalent in the United States, mainly because there is a name for practically everything there. If you have a Burnt Porcupine (Maine), why on Earth wouldn’t there be an Onion, Kansas, for instance? But to my surprise, there is hardly anything at all. And what little there is leaves a lot to be desired.
Ironically, the first direct equivalent uses the Spanish name. You could stop in Cebolla, New Mexico, but only if you want to. It’s a community in the north of the state, which possibly got its name from its equal in Spain, but it has never been incorporated and exists thanks to its unassuming population of 91. It’s basically in the middle of nowhere. My guess is that it’s probably the second-to-last place on Earth you’d want to be when your car breaks down in the middle of the night.
Then you have Oniontown, New York, which just might be the first. Oniontown is a village with a fairly unenviable reputation for being a humble district steeped in inbreeding, extreme white trash poverty, and longsuffering drug and alcohol abuse. A veritable trident of disgrace, I tell you. It is located all but 85 miles from one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, New York, which goes to show that the United States continues to be a land of stark contrasts.
Just like its sister community in New Mexico, Oniontown is not an official township but rather a rundown neighborhood on literally a dead-end street known as Onion Road, located within the limits of a municipality called Dover Plains. About a dozen years ago its derelict and grungy appearance earned dubious international notoriety thanks to a video filmed by a group of moronic college students who ventured into the area to gawk at and make fun of its disheveled residents. They posted their adventures online and it went viral. Many people were equally shocked by both the callousness of the unwanted visitors and the bumpkin lifestyle of the people who lived there, but my guess is that most watched it just to gawk, too. Human nature and such.
The students probably deserved to have their asses kicked in, but got away with it. Rather than expose the residents’ dire situation to the rest of the world and trigger a call to come to their aid, their offensive behavior mostly just prompted more young and inconsiderate pricks to try and do the same. That’s usually what happens in these cases. Human nature and such. But it seems that the locals wisened up and made sure future intruders left with fewer teeth and a bone or two no longer intact. So I guess some justice was done.
The residents prefer to keep to themselves and the police department has done its part to warn outsiders to mind their own business and respect others’ privacy. As they should. Oniontown goes about its business without the slightest desire to improve its situation, and I guess that is their prerogative, though I question how fair it is to deprive the coming generations of a chance for a better way of life. In any event, it’s safe to say that the good people of Cebolla, Spain, will not be seeking town-twinning with this community in Dutchess County any time soon.
Ah, yes, by the way, they also say that the name “Chicago” is the Miami tribe word for “stinky onion”. I’ll make sure my friends from the Windy City are aware of that.
Paradoxically, the town of Cebolla has nothing to do with the pungent vegetable, nor is the produce particular to those parts. You can find onions just about anywhere in Spain, and I promise you no one travels to this community from afar to purchase a kilo thinking they are taking home with them some of the nation’s finest. The name is actually a deformation of an Arabic word, or at least that’s what the experts think. The most widely accepted theory posits that it comes from “Yavayla”, meaning “hill”, which certainly makes sense since the town was eventually settled on a not-so-shabby plateau that looks out over the low-lying land around the Tajo River. According to this version, the unpronounceable word evolved into something that sounded closer to Spanish, “Zeboila”, and from there “Cebolla”. It’s a fairly common occurrence in languages when it comes to loanwords.
That Arabic was the source language shouldn’t come as such a shock. After all, the Muslims did control much of La Mancha for hundreds of years and that’s usually enough time to make an indelible mark on some of the place names. The region “La Mancha” itself most likely derives from the same tongue, probably from the word “manxa”, meaning “dry land”, which that pretty much sums up the climate here in a nutshell.
The designated pool house was in the far corner of the pool area and had none of the characteristics of your typical pre-fab shed, with a couple of wobbly plastic chairs and a spare sack of peat moss stashed inexplicably inside. Instead, this one looked like it had been assaulted in a previous life by a lance belonging to Don Quixote. It was, in effect, a down-sized version of a windmill and it made total sense.
The windmill is, along with the errant knight and his portly sidekick, Sancho Panza, the quintessential Manchego landmark. And rightly so. Miguel de Cervantes’ work, which is set mainly in La Mancha (hence its appearance in the title), is widely considered to be the greatest narrative contribution to universal literature…ever. That’s not just me or King Felipe VI of Spain saying that; the opinion was seconded by half of the world’s most highly regarded writers in a survey conducted several years ago. In other words, the people who knew a thing or two about these matters. This near unaminous acclaim also explains why any combination of the threesome can be seen and found and stumbled upon all over the region: in restaurants, hotels, stores, town signs, parks, gas stations, museums, government buildings, restrooms, logos and products, courtyards, living room tables and, now, even backyard shacks. They are omnipresent, there is no doubt. And Cebolla, though nowhere on the radar of the Quixote saga, had no plans on being left out. Near the main square stands a statue of the awkwardly iron-clad cavalier next to the familiar conic shape of a white windmill. Who else and what else would have been there?
Besides Holland, I can think of no other country on Earth where the windmill is so inextricably linked to the natural setting. These structures were probably first built in Spain in the 14th or 15th centuries when returning crusaders, who had discovered them during their warring adventures in the Holy Land, brought the technology with them to their homeland. The newfangled mechanism caught on rather quickly and became an obligatory sight in many towns, not unlike the ubiquitous water tower in the U.S. Midwest. There aren’t many old examples around these days. Probably the most famous examples are the beautiful whitewashed ones located in the town of Molinos de Consuegra on the other side of the province of Toledo. There, twelve structures proudly sit perched up on a ridge overlooking the pretty village. It’s a visit worth the effort.
Windmills are deceptively simple looking on the outside. A stout snowy tube with a thatched roof and propeller as a nose. That’s about all there is to it on the surface. But in their interior they display far more intricate machinery than you would think. Once the wind gets the wings turning, a network of wooden cogs and screws clap and creak away as the wheels go round in circles in order to get a huge millstone up and spinning furiously. It’s an impressive feat of engineering. All the same, an obvious question came to my mind when I first laid eyes on one from up close: what happens if the wind rushes in from another direction? Do they have to starve until the elements are more favorable? Or can the miller download an application on his iPhone and adjust it wirelessly? Though they look stocky and static and not of much use most of the time, the designers back then had an answer to that problem. On the outside, there is a pole that acts as a kind of rudder. It is attached to the movable cap at the top of the building, which, in turn, supports the sails. This can be rotated so that it makes the most of the wind no matter what direction it comes from. Ingenious.
Every once in a while, you read about an individual serving people who nostalgically want their flour made and bagged the traditional way, but for the most part they are a rare breed. A dying species. The molinos’ role as flour producers has long since been replaced by powerful factories which pump out a thousand-fold more powdered grain in a fraction of time and for a hell of a lot cheaper. That’s the way it is. Modern times. So, their role these days is mainly touristic, but their allure rather limited. Basically, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Despite their utter obsoleteness in the baking industry, the principle behind how windmills work has taken them to a different sector today altogether and made them more valuable than ever. Spain has not forgotten the enormous benefits of wind power and has transitioned its usefulness enthusiastically into the wonderment of generating electricity; thanks to these efforts, the country is one of the foremost users of this breezy renewable source of energy. It currently ranks 5th in the world in capacity and 3rd in production. 20% of the country’s total output comes from tapping into the earth’s atmospheric currents, with Castilla-La Mancha contributing 17% of the overall production. 141 wind farms are spread out throughout the region. The massive turbines populate vast stretches of the land in La Mancha, both on the plains and atop some of the hills, but their presence isn’t always welcome by ecologists who question their impact on the environment. Tourist boards also gripe about their unsightliness, since they interrupt the harmony of this country’s natural settings. This is now known as visual pollution, and they do have a point. You’re cruising along a beautiful country road enjoying the humbling effects of being engulfed in that vast openness that so characterizes La Mancha when –Bam!— three hundred turbines obliterate your perfect view of the great expanse. I get it; I really do. Not the best, but I guess they beat the sight of a cozy nuclear plant on the banks of the town reservoir. Plus, that was the direction the whole world was going in. Was Spain going to sit back and watch the others save the planet?
Not a chance. Since 2000, Spain has proven itself to be highly pro-active in renewable energy as a whole, not just wind. Take solar power, a logical choice since sunlight is a dominant climatic feature here. Madrid, for example, routinely outshines most European cities in this respect as its residents are exposed to approximately 2,800 hours of bursting sunniness every year. Anyone who has ever lived here year round can vouch for it.
But would it work? I had my doubts. Our solar system’s star doesn’t appear capable of heating something as manageable as a private swimming pool to my liking, how was it going to power an entire town? 20 years ago, solar energy was taking some heat, if you’ll excuse the pun, for not providing the efficiency needed to make it worth the investment. But experts claimed that if there was one country that could make it work, with more advanced technology, Spain was it. With the proper technology, its effectiveness could be increase.
With this advice in mind, the government invested €8.1 billion in subsidies, research and development. In 2005 Spain became the first nation in Europe to require installing solar panels on the roofs of all new buildings, and by the end of the decade, specialists in the field regarded it as a kind of leader in the crusade to make the planet a cleaner and fossil-fuel free place. It was a distinction this country could really be proud of.
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.
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.