Many people back home ask me how I spend my Easter Sunday and I always tell them the same: In a car, on a highway and with a handful of swear words on hand and a head full of ways I would like to commit violent acts.
It’s a reasonable enquiry considering Spain has a big reputation for being such a deeply religious country, with KKK-like brotherhoods parading about scores of towns and cities toting floats depicting anguished images from the passion of Christ. But that occurs days before when everyone commiserates with the suffering of the Savior on the eve of his crucifixion. The part about his coming back to life, the happy-ending resurrection, that triumphant “Hey, he really is the Son of God after all”, is overshadowed by the fear of running into one of the worst traveling days of the calendar. It’s a kind of Sunday after Thanksgiving to the tenth power.
There was a couple of years there when I took time away from this activity and stayed in Madrid, time off to recover from repeated ordeals. But I finally returned to one of Spain’s greatest traditions: Operación Retorno. The photo actually shows traffic heading in the opposite the direction, towards the feared Alicante, but the sense of helplessness it conveys is virtually the same on the way back.
There is really nothing complicated about experiencing this great custom. Just spend a weekend about 500 kilometers away, pack your car, get behind the wheel, and head for the nearest highway that takes you back to Madrid. Then you look for the first traffic jam you can find, pull up at the end of the line and participate.
In the past, returning from a coastal place like Alicante meant the backup usually started a few yards from where my car was parked, some 350 miles from Madrid. It could go on for days. But this time I was regressing from the north, and that made things slightly more tolerable. The electronic panels spanning the road informed the traveler of any impending doom, and on this occasion indicated that we could expect “slow traffic”, which I took as a good sign since it suggested we would be home in two hours instead of the usual four or five it might normally take. The traffic adopted the classic worm effect, crunching and stretching out throughout the countryside of Madrid. Every kilometer we advance counted as victory toward a common goal: reaching Fort Living Room before insanity set in.
To say you returned to Madrid on Easter Sunday without considering homicide is a true indicator of just how involved you are in life here. It’s a necessary part of your training in Spanish culture. It’s like mastering the subjunctive mode in Spanish, or watching from beginning to the final credits of the Eurovision song contest. No one wants to go through with it, and yet everyone should.
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?”
“Is that you should do to a highly complex motor in motion?”
“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.