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.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles 6

I didn’t believe it when they told me, but it finally turned out to be true.  The tracks between Spain and France were a different size. Francewent by the international standard gauge, with a width 4ft 8 ½ inches across; but on this side of the Pyrenees, the authorities preferred the wider Iberian gauge, which comes to 5ft 5 2/3 inches.  It’s the second broadest track in the world, just a fraction narrower than the Indian gauge.  This is no doubt a tidbit of trivia most citizens of this world do not know, and may not see the need to, but there you have it, a fact all the same.  This discrepancy in iron girth, struck me as yet another example ofEurope’s inability to set up its infrastructure in a cohesive manner, in addition to its myriad currencies, languages World Wars and such; and I may just be on the mark.  Common Lore claims it was a deliberate attempt by the Spanish to keep other Europeans nations, in particular the French, from invading the country via the railway routes.

     There may be a shred of truth there since France had on more than one occasion proven itself inclined to incur and plunder this land, with extreme prejudice, I might add.  What better way to hinder future aspirations of this kind than to make an entire army hop off the train at the frontier and hoof it from there.  No one likes to hike thePyreneesbefore battle, I can assure you.  It makes for uncomfortable warfare.

      Of course, on the other hand, no one has considered the thought that maybe it was the rest of the countries which narrowed their tracks to keep the Spanish out.  Unlikely as it may seem, it is fair to mention all the same.

      Despite the general belief, no specific mention of any military aims was made when the Iberian gauge was established as this country’s official size back in 1950s. Spainjust likes to be different it would seem.

      Decades later it meant that if you wanted to invade the rest of the continent as a tourist, first you had to alight at a town called Portbou, cross the border and hoist yourself back on another at Cerbere to carry onto Avignon.  Or something like that.  It may be that in Portbou itself there was a continental track parallel to the one we had used.  In any event, the peculiarity came across as quirky at first, but the novelty soon wore off.  On top of that, my friend John, who had bought some kind of fancy six-month all included pass, had to pay the sucker’s surcharge.  But that was in France, and that was the French.Le supplemént du Sucker, I think they denoted it.  The return was similar, just the other way around in almost every sense.  We got back on the Spanish train and bolted back toMadrid, passing byBarcelona.  The German was no where in sight.  That meant he had either recovered or been admitted to a hospital.  Having no money on us and no new travel companion to get drunk with, we were forced to deal with the backboard without the assistance of booze.  Soon the bench’s virtues as an instrument of torture became more apparent by the hour, and the passengers who shared our cabin had the annoying habit of living in places whose stations we reached at the most unsettling hours.  Sleep was seldom.  Slumber even rarer.

     We finally made it to Madrid just past dawn.  It was Easter Sunday.  We had returned with an American friend who was living in Avignon and yearned to spend a week or two in Spain to catch some halfway decent weather.  When we sat down to lunch, we paused in mid-meal to stare out the window with astonishment as the first snowflakes of the winter tumbled to earth.  Although it was early April, it was the first time that year.  Expect the unexpected from Madrid.  Always.