25 Years in Spain: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 8

As luck would have it, I didn’t have to go through the dreadful process of becoming a certified private driver in this country at the cost of hours of classes and dents in my wallet.  Law and the lawmakers would change that no long afterwards, but when I was still a stripling in this town, you could mosey on down to places like the RACE offices, which used to be on Bravo Murillo I believe, and fork over 5,000 pesetas for someone in the office to give you one.  They just assumed you knew how to drive.

            But first, and there always is a “but first” in this country, you had to locate a nearby medical center where you could undergo a test known as a psicotécnico, which sounded to me at first like they wanted to hook me up to a bunch of wires, show me blot images while playing  Tom Jones’ songs in the background and ask how I was feeling.

         It turned out to be just a fancy name for a physical.

         And not a very physical one at that.  I didn’t have to sprint a hundred yards in under 12 seconds, but they did look into certain fairly important sensorial qualities like eyesight and eye-hand coordination. In other words, could I see and just how much or if a train were coming as I crossed the tracks, would I know what to do.

         But first, because there always had to be a first, I had to pay for this.  This cost me in the neighborhood of about 5,000 pesetas, or what amounted to about a day’s work for me.

         The eye test was complete but not the end of everything.  Essentially they told me everything I already knew.  They wrote on a paper that I needed glasses, which I knew since that was the feeling I always got about myself when I took off my specs.  They added that I should I have a replacement pair available at all times, which is true, but I don’t.

         Up to that point, the test had proceeded without serious challenge, but the good people at the clinic had a trick up their sleeve which they had failed to inform me of.  It was time for the eye-hand coordination game to see how good the rest of my reflexes were.  For some reason I figured tat this would amount to little more that a rubber hammer being thudded below my kneecap, but the office had something slightly more sophisticated in mind. They were video games.

         There exist a number of tests, and on this occasion I got to face one.  It consisted of watching a ball appear from the left side of the screen, then disappear beneath a kind of block.  I was supposed to judge when the right time would be for the ball to stop before crashing into a wall on the right side.  To do this I was supposed to press a button at the moment I felt was right.  Graphically speaking it had all of the appeal of one of those 1970s prototype video games, but that didn’t matter because the reality was it had the power to determine my future as a driver.

         I had always assumed that my hours of Friday timewasting at the local arcade in my hometown would somehow come in handy later on in life, and this seemed like the moment had presented itself.  The best place was in the bowling lanes.  Yes, Greenwich had both a bowling lane and an arcade.  They happened to be in the same place.  This may have been a concerted effort to confine all cheesiness to one place, but we knew where the cheesiness was.  So, instead of making the most of my weekend to get a little studying in, I generally waned away my youth before a video screen uselessly making imaginary spaceships disappear until they did the same to me.

        I figured this bit of early training should have been enough to ease me through the test and probably contributed to my nonchalant attitude at the clinic. That was until the inspector looked at my results and said, “Please take this seriously.”


        “You’ve crashed your balls into the wall at least three times.  According to this you’re not fit to ride a tricycle.”

       So, I did, and after some further concentration managed to pass.

        Then I went back and requested the new driver’s license.  But first, and there always is a “but first”, I had to fork over another 5,000 pesetas as a general fee for no particular reason.  It’s supply and demand.  I wanted to drive, and only they could get make that happen.   So, it was another 5,000 pesetas for the system.

      A few days later, my friend back at RACE handed me my pink foldable driver’s license and said that I now had permission to drive amongst the other 38 million Spaniards, which I felt was a reasonable offer for just a few buckaroos.

       All I needed to do was learn.

Public Relations and The Spanish Armada

Another classic Spanish expression is “Abril, aguas mil”, which literally means, “April, a thousand waters”.  In English they are known as April showers, but here so far, they have been a little more steady.  It’s been a rough week for Spain.  The monarchy is against the ropes as a judge asked the Princess Cristina to stop by the courts for a little questioning regarding her involvement or not (after all, she has even been formally charged, let alone convicted…so let’s not make her guilty before even being a candidate for being guilty before being charged), but let’s just say that it was the last thing this country needed.  Or perhaps, the first thing.  Now that we are cleaning out house, let’s make it spic-n-span.  Meanwhile, the rest of us go about our lives they have been doing for the last five years, as if nothing really happened.  The rest of the world watches and wonders.  It’s another notch in the Dreadful Spanish Public Relations Campaign log.  It’s been that way for centuries.

            Take the Spanish Armada, for example.  Here’s what I was told when I was 12 years old and under the impression my European History teacher knew a lot:

The Spanish under Phillip II tried to conquer England and restore Catholicism to that kingdom.  Phillip sent the largest fleet the planet had ever known, went up to the shores of Great Britain and got whooped by the tiny English fleet manned by smaller but faster English ships, with a little help from a storm.  Drake and his men outwitted the Duque de Medina Sidonia and his cumbersome flota.  The Armada was destroyed, Phillip detained, and the heroes of the day, Elizabeth and her countrymen, victorious against overwhelming odds.

       Sounds good from a British perspective, and the general gist is no far off, at least in the sense that the English one and the Spanish lost, but the rest of the facts were somewhat different.

       The original plan of the Armada was not to defeat the English at sea, but to pick up the Spanish army, under the command of the Duke of Parma, in Flanders and use it to invade England.  Spainin those days was unique in that it was said to be the only nation with a fulltime professional army, due in part, no doubt, to the fact it was almost always at war.  Its tercios were the marines of their day, and the most feared force inEurope.  Reaching English soil was the last thingElizabeth would have wanted.

       The plan was a daring and complex operation made trickier by the fact that communications at the time were scant.  This would prove decisive to the outcome.

         The Armada was a fearsome force to be reckoned with and a direct threat to the future ofEngland, but it wasn’t the largest group of warships ever assembled; it wasn’t even as large as the English force, which outnumbered their foes about 230 ships to 140.  The Spanish had more guns, I’ll give you that, but that advantage proved less significant since the English possessed faster ships which were harder to shoot at.  Then there was another factor: the Spanish preferred boarding enemy ships and defeating their enemies in hand-to-hand combat, which sounds courageous but takes away from the edge you might have in terms of artillery.

            The leader of the fleet was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who bravely rose to the challenge even though he had absolutely no sea warfare experience.  They might as well have sent me, for all it was worth.  The Duke apparently wasn’t very keen on the plan, given its evident risks, nor were many of Phillip’s advisors.  But most advisors back then were there to agree with the monarch and not rebuke him, so their opinions were of little good.

          The English navy inflicted relatively little damage on the Armada.  It was just too dangerous to take it on directly, so they nipped at it here and there, forcing it to adopt a defensive formation all the way to its destination where…where…practically no one was waiting for them.

          What do you know!  The ground forces had been stricken with disease and half the force was unable to go anywhere.  The Duke of Medina Sidonia held tight for as long as he could hoping he could carry out the mission, but that was when the English decided to sail in numerous unmanned boats that had been on set on fire.  The Spanish, who thought the vessels were packed with gunpowder and other explosives, broke their formation and scattered.  This was what the English had been hoping for.  They Armada managed to pull together again, but decided that it could no longer wait for the land troops and decided to return toSpain.

        Due to the winds and the English force to their backs, they chose to take the long route around the Scotland and Ireland before heading home.

       This was a mistake.

       They ran into some of the worst gales the region had seen in years.  Ships were tossed against the rocks like toys.  Men either drowned in the shipwrecks or made it to land, upon which most were promptly killed by the locals.  It wasn’t a good time to be a Spanish sailor, I tell you.

          Twenty-five ships were lost there, some thirty-five in all, and the loss of life was horrendous, most of which came as a result of disease and bad luck.

            So, it wasn’t a particularly good enterprise by the Spanish, but the facts surrounding the events differ significantly from what the English would like us to believe.  They won, used their resources pretty well, and got pretty damned lucky.  But history is full of crucial moments whose outcomes are owed to fortune more than anything man had done.

            Let’s see what the week beholds.

25 Years in Spain: Planes, Trains and Automobiles 8

In finally came time for me to forgo public transportation and return to the means that made my country what it is, for better or worse: the car.  After all, that was what I had been born and raised to do.  Buses and subways were neat in an environmental sort of way, but even the most hardnosed ecologist, and I certainly wasn’t one, found living without a Ford handy to be a bit of a chore.  I could handle this for a while, but finally I needed to get back on the road and back to my American roots.

The problem was, I didn’t have a car, nor did I have a Spanish driver’s license, and while this is all right for a temporary stay, it was becoming evermore clear to me that I was in this country for the long haul and needed to be able to have an official permit.

Now getting your license inSpainis, in short, complicated, tricky and expensive.  Really expensive.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 when all is said in done.  The process from beginning to end is long and painful, and failing is commonplace.  Of course, once you have one, then you have to go out and learn how to drive because as anyone can tell you, the real knowledge comes through experience.  Not so, say the Spanish.  First you have to practically a perfect driver.  Then you can hit the streets.  But this ideas coincides with Spanish mentality in general, which puts greater emphasis on actually possessing a degree or permit than actually knowing how to do something well.  There is certainly nothing wrong with being well-trained.  But true expertise appears over the years.

When I was growing up, it was the exact opposite.  Obtaining a permit to drive a motorized vehicle inConnecticutwas so easy that if you didn’t manage to pull it off the first time around, you were the laughing stock of school.  That was where the pressure was.  It was almost like failing a college entrance exam because you didn’t know your times table.  The written test was an arcade video-game style multiple choice question which told you as you went how you were doing.  I never reached the brink stage, but it did add a little excitement to the challenge.  Then came time for the driving stage.  My test consisted of pulling out of the parking lot and making four right turns around the block and pulling back in.  The examiner said to me, “Congratulations!  You are a very good driver.”

And I said to myself, “How do you know?  I haven’t done a thing.”  I almost had an accident that very afternoon because, and let’s be honest with ourselves, I still had a long way to go before I could really drive.

It was also easy because you didn’t have to even learn how to use a manual transmission car as most cars were automatic.  Americans had long made it clear that they were going to make efforts to create the kind of technology that would allow machines do all the work for us.  We are getting closer and closer to cars that can move without our assistance; they can already park on their own.

But deep down it was everyone young man’s desire to want to know how to use stick because it was the sign of a true macho, but all the horror stories of trying to get one ton of metal forward on your own with leaving the engine on the ground was a greater deterrent than anyone of our wishes.

I recall my friend Richie who would tell of his experiences at driving school under the tutelage of a man named Vinny who apparently cherished his car more than all other objects on this planet.  This is why I have always wondered why that man would subject the center of his life to the inexperienced hands and feet of dozens of teenagers, but the world is full of contradictions, and money too.

Richie would slowly stick the shaft into first, the car rolling, slip it into second, accelerate, drive into third and then fourth and, amid the ecstasy of the moment, quite possibly my friend had mentally turned Vinny into a beautiful blonde with a sexy private school kilt and sweater on, and looking to increase the power and the intensity of the moment, grabbed the handle of the gear lever and gruffly forced it into what he thought was the fifth and final speed.

The car screamed out, not too differently from the way a sow might should a knife be opening its chest, then all sorts of metal and oil crashed within, and the car lunged forward another ten feet before halting there and then causing its passengers to whip back against the fake leather upholstery.

Vinny scratched his forehead and sighed the way you might when you thought about sending a person to go scuba-diving at the bottom of a lake with ten sacks of cement, and then asked.

 “Richie.  Do you like me?”

 My friend would answer eagerly.  “Yeah, Vinny.  Of course.”

 “Then if you like me, why do you do this to me?”

 “I don’t know?”

 “How many speeds does this car have?”


  “Very good.” He breathed heavily again. “Do you know what you just did?”

  “I spaced and stuck the engine into reverse.”

  “At what speed?”

  “45 mph.”

 “Is that you should do to a highly complex motor in motion?”

 “Definitely not.”

 “Very good.”

“So, if it’s all right with you. Please try to remember that there are four speeds on this car.  Do you think that will be possible?”


“Good.  Now, start the car, please.”

Vinny sounded to me that he would have been an excellent high school teacher had he not been so keen on his car and gambling.

In Spain, as I said, it’s a whole different world.  You have to go to classes, read books, take required driving classes, shell out hundreds of dollars and pray.  Then you have to pass the written test, and if you do, wait before you can take the practical test and, and here’s the tough part, actually pass it.  The tension it causes has been known to make people act irrationally.  I know of a case in which a woman was told to pull out and turn right and, oppressed by her own nerves, unbuckled her seatbelt and tried to climb over the driver and leave the car “on the right”.  I also know of cases where candidates had to retake the test up to seven times. It’s one big money-making machine.

I was in no way up for the task and even reconsidered the benefits of walking and public transport.  Living12 milesfrom my school and the next metro workers’ strike made me change my mind.