TRIP TO SPAIN-A FEW OBSERVATIONS
MAY 23-JUNE 1,2013
BY RALPH FISHER
Hola del Espana!Greetings from Spain. I'm in the middle of a visit to Spain but I found a computer and thought I'd tell some friends and family how the trip is going while it's fresh in my head.
Last week I flew from Tampa to Spain to visit the southern region called Andalucia. This visit to Spain involved flying into Madrid and since Delta flies there from Atlanta daily I took an economy flight and after clearing Spanish customs, bought a Spanish sim telephone card and traveled by bus to the huge Atocha train station in Madrid early on the morning of May 23, 2013. The trip through the city was thrilling and I felt like Hemingway watching the history of each giant plaza roll by in the bright cold morning knowing that although I was headed to the south of Spain today, I’d be back in 8 days to see more of this giant, sprawling, historic city.
Fortunately, I had purchased tickets for 29 euros (about $38) a month ago online to ride on the Renfe (“AVE”-high speed) train to Cordoba and at noon I found myself jet lagged having a beer in the bar on the train with businessmen who chattered away in a clipped rough sounding Spanish that had my head reeling.
I looked outside and saw the countryside flying by and asked a man how fast the train was going. He answered: "Como?" (how?) He had no idea what I was saying until I said in Spanish, "Que velocidad es esta train Sr.?"-What’s the speed of this train, Sir? (Yikes I thought, if a well dressed business man in a suit doesn't speak English, then it’s going to be a long difficult two weeks in Spain!)
He told me the answer though: 275 KPH or about 170 Miles an Hour! Wow, my trip had started with a huge bargain- only $38 for an ultra fast bullet train ride in Spain. I later found out the trains costs a lot more than what I'd paid but that I'd gotten a cheap price because of buying the ticket a month in advance from the U.S. online.
Within two hours I was perched in a brand new Prius Toyota taxi headed to my hotel in Cordoba which towered over the Quadaquivir River on the south bank and overlooked the old city and the famous Mezquita mosque. I opened the fourth floor window of my hotel wide and took a deep breath at the view of the city and realized that in a mere two hours I had traveled 250 miles to Andalucia from Madrid. Here, I could see hills in the other direction covered in orange groves and olive orchards. Later I saw orange trees in abundance throughout the town. It seemed that every small square of the town had a complement of evenly spaces orange trees although most with oranges appeared to be “root stock”- sour oranges that aren't any good to eat.
Walking across the street I saw an amazing sight my first hour in Cordoba: the cars religiously stopped for people in pedestrian cross walks. I didn’t trust it at first, but every Spanish driver followed this one rule (even if other traffic rules seem to be hardly enforced, including speeding). I wandered around the area and came upon a cafe for some local food and found that the menu was simple and that wine was cheap. The place offered wine for 1 euro a glass. (In grocery stores I found wine for under 2 euros a bottle up to 12 euros depending on what region of the wine came from). In fact, although you can find exotic food in Cordoba, most Spanish restaurants use the same menu and just vary their prices a bit. I ended up having sword fish and salad with white or red wine and found that if you're on a budget you can eat out at a fair price in Spain. Tipping isn't as expensive as the U.S. but I always gave a least 10% and a local told me I was ruining it for all the locals because they give only a euro or two with a meal in a local establishment.
My second day a Spaniard told me about a local fair (called a ferias) that was taking place in Cordoba and I went. My gosh, what a party! There were dozens of giant tents set up with various styles of bars and eateries where thousands of people in costume and on horseback staggered and galloped around and got progressively more drunk.
I spotted one tent with a giant Cuban flag and slogans of the “revolution” and out of curiosity I went there for a glass of wine. There found a huge open air tent filled with dancing and loud recorded Cuban music. Huge Cuban flags and banners with slogans from the communist island along with pictures of Che Guevara lined the walls. After a half hour or so I met a two well dressed middle aged couples drinking Mohitos and having animated conversations that occasionally broke out in laughter and back slapping. I conversed with them in my pigeon Spanish and found them all to be left wing Spanish "Republicans". They pointed out another guy in the corner who waived a giant Spanish flag with a purple stripe at the bottom signifying allegiance to the Republicans. After some drinks and attempts at speaking in the horrendously loud tent it was explained to me that the Republicans had fought and lost the Spanish civil war in 1936 against the Hitler backed Nationalists of Franco.
Although I didn't want to get involved in Spanish politics given my sparse fluency in Spanish and state of intoxication, I jumped right in and ended up befriending the two men. Their wives turned out to be high school teachers at a local high school. It seems they taught English although I could hardly understand their English due to the incredibly loud music and the fact that I’d had 4 or five glasses of wine.
As is typical for me, I ended up getting invited to teach at their high school for a day! (“Just leave your right wing American politics at home,” was my only restriction.) Meanwhile, the police, the drunks, the marauding hoards galloping around on horses and the gorgeous Spanish women in native costume along with the incessant beat of the music not to speak of the river of liquor merged into a blur in my jet lagged head such that I only vaguely remember coming home from the feria! I woke up with an aching head and the names of the two teachers and the name of their school scratched on a piece of Cuban cardboard.
So, it was off the school I went! The ride into the suburbs started out badly since the taxi driver charged full fare to drive to the hotel for the ride to school. Note: don't ever call a taxicab to come pick you up in Spain. Instead, walk to the taxi stand (“parada por los taxis”) so you don't end up paying double.
The school itself was a prison in that I had to enter into via a room surrounded by metal bars and walls. The door clanked behind me and I felt like I was booked in a Spanish jail for a moment but after a time a lady spoke from behind bullet proof glass inquiring as to what I wanted a the school. I explained and showed the cardboard card. The woman was highly skeptical but she recognized the names and had me wait while she scurried away to find the teachers and see if I was legitimate. I wore a suit jacket and had a fresh shave although I’m sure I smelled like a brewery.
The lady returned smiling and pushed a buzzer to give me access to the school where an escort took me to the room. The teacher, Immy, was all smiles and I could tell she was flabbergasted that I was actually there and I ended up enjoying the day speaking English with her class. Unlike the other 95% of the Spanish people, these kids looked like they might have a small chance to get ahead in the world economy knowing the franca lingua: English. They asked the strangest questions though: how many countries have you visited, do you know other languages besides Spanish and English, how old is your daughter, how did you meet our teacher, what are your hobbies, etc.
I left the school for a café and had a coffee and caught the first bus I could find hoping it would take me back to the city. Along the way, walking around the suburbs of Cordova I saw that there are a lot of down and out folks in Spain. Homelessness isn't as obvious as in the U.S are first glance but I saw plenty of groups of guys standing around smoking cigarettes under trees in squares and parks. If you open your eyes you can see the face of the reality in Spain today: over 28% of adult men are out of work and half of men between 15 and 25 can't find a job. And those that do work seem to make very little.
One army officer I met named Manuel made 1200 euros a month- about $1560 a month. The people on pensions earn under 1000 euros a month. I was warned by several Spaniards to not bring out a wad of money in public because it didn't look right to the hoard of poor around us. As a security precaution I carried a copy of my passport and my money and hotel key and nothing else in walking around. After a few days I had the confidence to carry a camera in a cloth bag along with a note but and an electronic translator which came in handy talking to people and reading Spanish newspapers. Again, although hotel staff and airline employees know English, don’t expect the same from taxi drivers and waiters. The Spanish are as bad as the Americans when it comes to speaking another language.
But friendly? My god how these people will go out of their way to help you. When I came back from the suburbs after a day of teaching English, I had jumped on the first bus that came by and paid 1.2 euros and sat down hoping the bus was somehow headed back toward the old part of the city where the monuments and my hotel were located. But after some uneasy miles I started to get a little anxious. I asked a lady who was traveling with her young daughter how to get to "El Mexquita"-the giant mosque that is now the biggest tourist attraction in Cordoba. She responded in rapid fire Spanish, "No tiene un plan?”- Don't you have a map? No. I had nothing I said. So she proceeded to engage in a spirited discussion with some other passengers in impossible to decipher Spanish about what they were going to do with me. I had somehow thrust myself upon them and I was their responsibility now: so strange. In the end they all came up with a consensus about where I should alight from the bus and what direction I should walk to finish my journey. I later discovered that some Spaniards will even walk you to your destination if it’s not too far out of their way. They never seemed to be in a hurry and the whole society seemed to move to the rhythm of an unseen hand guiding them about their daily business.
I had one horrible incident when asking for directions however. I was in the labyrinth of the old city and was hopelessly lost at one point and although I had a city map by then I didn’t know where I was at the moment. So, I approached a slow moving man with sunglasses and showed him a landmark on a tourist map and asked if he could point me in the right direction, in Spanish. Instead of helping me, he turned and looked my full in the face and said in a deep rough voice, "No puedo ver Yo soy ciego!”-I can't see! I'm blind". He was a blind man sure enough and he stumbled off feeling is way down the sidewalk. Jesus I felt like an idiot. For the rest of the trip I called the intersection where I'd met him blind man's square.
I'll write more later because there's a lot more that happened and I'm only halfway through the visit to Spain. I come home in June.