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.