Schiffrin, Anya

IF YOU WANTED TO FIND MY GREAT UNCLE Jose Luis de la Iglesia, who lived in Madrid, then it was quite simple: every day he went to the Café Chicote on Gran Via. he had been going there since he was seventeen to have his cigar and aperitif. But after he retired, from being a dentist, he began going there directly after lunch. The friends he met with were all fellow bullfight fans and that subject featured largely in their conversation.

My grandmother, Laura, and my great aunt, Carmen de la Iglesia, met every Wednesday at 3 p.m. at Casa Poli on Galle Infantas. They sat at the same table and ordered the roast chicken with chips as they had done for years and they were served by a waiter named Alvaro. In the Spain of my childhood, there were still some of these vestiges of the old customs: when people did not have telephones, they went to the same place at the same time and if their friends wanted to find them, they went there as well.

In so many ways, Spain under Franco was frozen and so it was a window into the way daily life had been conducted in much of Europe but perhaps fifty years earlier. Even into the sixties, clothes were made by tailors and not bought in stores. Mattresses were made of wool that was whipped into shape every spring by an itinerant mattress whipper who came to the house early in the morning and beat the horse hair while the cotton casings were washed, hung out to dry, ironed, and then restitched. Stoves were refilled by a man who brought gas canisters around to the different neighborhoods and, from the street, shouted “butano” to let people up in their apartments know he was there.

The Spain of my childhood was a world of nuns, beggars, guardia civil, of heavy food and a rigid class structure in which everyone knew his or her place. There were the tatas (nannys) from the countryside, there were old women in black, spinster aunts, and lots and lots of widows. The middle-class ones all seemed to have some sort of small legacies or pensions that kept them going; they spent years without working. They went to mass, to bingo (once it was legalized in the seventies), or to play cards and drink borchata with women in similar positions. Many people went to the movies every day in Madrid and twice a day on weekends. Television did not become widespread until the sixties-years after it became popular in the United States. Toothpaste was rare, even in big cities people brushed with bicarbonate. Life was lived frugally, ice cream for dessert only on Sundays, a wallet used for decades after the leather had worn out, a tip for the waiter was often as little as ten or twenty-five cents.

There were so many poor villages and poor people, but the landscape was wild and beautiful. In the south, the houses were whitewashed and in some places the smell of sewage was very strong. The shops were small and crowded and had a strong smell of soap powder and ripe oranges. The people smelled of perfume and sweat and dark tobacco and the odor of garlic and olive oil was in the air.

My memories-of summers spent in Andalusia -are these: my father in espadrilles going to buy rings of fried dough (chums) which he brought home on a stick and which we dunked into coffee (with extra milk for the children), of siesta times when the adults slept and my sister and I played endless games of Continental (a card game that only Spaniards seem to know) with my great aunt Carmen while she smoked a cigarette and allowed us each one small bottle of Coke or orange Fanta. When siesta was over-my grandfather used to say “wake me at 7” before going for his-it was time for the paseo. Like other families we would walk up and down the Paseo de Maritimo and look at the multitudes of children. Many families dressed theirs in matching clothes. We were allowed a cake or an ice cream and then the adults would buy potato chips that we watched being made in an enormous pot of boiling oil before being put into thin plastic bags closed with a neat little knot. We would come home, put the chips and some olives in little bowls, and the men would have a whiskey with ice, and we would sit talking quietly in the dark of the evening until it was time for dinner. Passersby watched us through the front gate, Spanish people were famously “without shame” and would peek over the fence or into people’s houses. Neighbors and building porteras knew everything that was going on and watched to make sure things were in order. Spaniards were a noisy lot, young men proudly rode their motorbikes without mufflers, gangs of teenagers would walk through the streets singing and clapping. At night, even the smallest children stayed up late playing in the streets.

We visited Spain because we did not live there. My mother-Maria Elena de la Iglesia Keller-was exiled when she was three. Much of my family was from Madrid but had moved to Barcelona when the Republican capital moved there in 1939. So my mother, grandmother, and grandfather took boats from Gandia to England and when my mother arrived in Devon, people were amazed because they had never seen a little girl with earrings before. They had to leave Spain because my grandfather was a colonel in the Republican Army. he died before he was able to move back to Spain, so we went in the summers and the nostalgia of my childhood is mixed with an extra layer of my mother’s nostalgia of exile.

The feeling of oppression was pervasive. If you saw a gnardia civil on the street-with their distinctive shiny, black three-cornered hats-you kept your voice down and did not discuss politics. I remember in Andalusia seeing an old man with a sheet spread on the street where he seemed to be selling small, plastic toys. But when I asked my father if we could buy one he said they weren’t really for sale: begging was illegal so the toys were just a pretext. We gave him a coin and kept walking.

In Catalunya one never spoke Catalan to an official or to a shopkeeper because the language was banned. Instead, people-mostly working classspoke Catalan at home. If they wanted to read a banned book they bought them in France-they were printed there or in South America-and Perpignan was where people went to see politically sensitive films or an X-rated movie. Schools were Catholic and the education was punitive with much emphasis placed on religion and the suffering of Jesus. Bikinis were illegal and no one wore miniskirts.

When I moved to Barcelona in the mid-eighties, I was amazed by how different it was from the Spain of my childhood. It seemed as if a whole country had almost disappeared in the years I had been away. By chance, I had arrived in time to catch the last glimpses of the wild times that had come to Spain after Franco died in 1975. His death had meant that all those years of pent-up passion were abruptly over. Suddenly everyone got divorced, had abortions in Spain instead of going to London, orgies were quite common, and drugs were rampant. In Barcelona there was an explosion of new designers many of whom made sleek, modern bars. Nightlife had always been late in Spain-especially in the south-but in Barcelona dozens of new bars opened and they were a complete contrast to the old places where sweaty hams hung from the ceiling and people ate fried fish and chunks of cheese and threw the little waxy paper serviettes and olive pits on the floor to be swept up at the end of the night. The new bars were all about stainless steel and exposed piping and outrageously modern bathrooms with frosted glass doors and cardboard coasters for drinks and soft napkins decorated with hip new logos designed by the army of young graphic designers in the city. They also designed book jackets, elegant museum catalogues, and posters and letterheads and brochures for local businesses. There were gorgeous houseware stores, like Vincon, built in an old house that had been gutted and stocked with furniture made by the new wave of young designers. New writers came into fashion: Felix de Azua, Cristina Fernandez Cubas, and Eduardo Mendoza.

There were still the weekly tertulias (salons) of writers and groups of other professionals who met with their colleagues and friends in bars around the city to talk about their work and their ideas. There was also a residual affection for the old forms of entertainment in the run-down sailors’ quarter near El Parallèle: the tacky Catalan version of the Moulin Rouge in Paris, called El Molino, where a live band played and scantily clad dancers performed risqué song and dance numbers, in front of hand-painted sets, punctuated by corny vaudeville skits with off-color jokes. The theatre was a little red and gilt jewel box and each seat had a ledge behind it on which the persons behind you could balance their drinks. At La Paloma, old and young working-class types came in from the provinces and danced old-fashioned dances. Bodega Bohemia nightly put on a cheesy cabaret with an ancient pianist and old singers long past their prime, who sang sentimental songs. Oddly, there was even a gormless young man whose routine consisted of tying himself up in barbed wire. Weekends we went to Barceloneta to eat paella at little shacks on the beach or up to the hills to a tiny family-run barbeque place. Sitting with a glass of sherry or a beer in cafes in the Plaza Catalunya and the Plaza Real took up many afternoons. Some of the museums (Picasso and Miró) were wonderfully designed but the Museo Romanico with its vast collection of medieval religious art was still a dark and slightly crumbly place. If you had a fax sent to the central post office-a gorgeous nineteenth-century building on the waterfront-they sent a messenger on a motorcycle to deliver it to your home free of charge. At the main market, the Boqueria, the fish women addressed their customers as “king” and “queen” and, rumor had it, told stories of a simple fish seller discovered by a rich man who married her and rescued her from the work of market life. People still made disparaging jokes about Spain-when something failed to work-a plane was late or a letter got lost-it was normal to say “Africa begins at the Pyrenees” or “this is really a third-world country” or “Spain Is Different”-the national tourism office’s slogan but said in a resigned way accompanied by a shrug.

Nationalism in the eighties was widespread. Originally a way of declaring one’s independence and hatred of the ruling fascists, many of the people in the provinces felt that they were really Catalan or Gallego or Basque rather than Spanish. After the transition these national identities became even more important and the rhetoric of separatism (illegal under Franco) became a common part of daily political life. In Catalunya, Catalan has become the language of commerce and those that speak Castillian as a first language use it mainly at home. Catalan books and television and newspapers are widespread and were often underwritten by the state. The Catalan flag is endemic and the national dance (the Sardana) is performed by older people on many of the region’s holidays.

Now-fifteen years later-the transformation of Barcelona is complete. So many of the old places are gone, some torn down in the huge gentrification project that transformed much of the city in preparation for the 1992 Olympics. Internet cafes abound, the old bars have been replaced by chains selling expensive coffee and HäagenDazs and Fraggi ice creams. Everyone has a cell phone and you can buy lemon grass and miso paste in some of the supermarkets or go out for sushi or Thai food-something unthinkable fifteen years ago. There are hordes of new stores that didn’t exist even five or ten years ago-shops devoted to scented candles and up-market ethnic crafts shops with baskets from Africa and textiles from Asia. People still go for the late afternoon paseo but they are no longer as formally dressed- sneakers and sweat pants have almost replaced the silky blouses and pressed skirts worn by the older women and the blue blazers and pocket squares that were the uniform of a certain class of men.

I am still trying to understand what happened to what I knew. As I travel around the country, I look for some hints, but the old customs seem almost to have evaporated. So many of the changes in Barcelona and Madrid have taken place in the rest of the country as well. Spain has better roads now and proper highways and fast trains. The postal system works (more or less) and people don’t go home for lunch every day with their parents. Indeed many young people now have their own apartments instead of living at home (until and even after marriage) with their parents and grandparents. But, of course, a lot of the villages are much uglier than they were, especially on the coast where tourism has continued to expand and lots of the new developments have been bought up by Dutch and Germans.

After the rush of the eighties to reject the old ways a few small reversals are now evident. In the eighties people wanted modern apartments with dishwashers in newer parts of town. Now Spain has discovered gentrification and it is chic to renovate a crumbly walk-up apartment in the old quarter or buy a weekend house in some dusty country village instead of on the built-up coast. Catalanism is also slowing down a bit, the younger generation is less assertive about their Catalan identity and their right to speak Catalan, more taking it for granted.

You can see how the changes have affected people’s lives by looking at the children-now middle-aged-of my great uncle Rodrigo. The oldest daughter, Chitina, a practicing Catholic, married a French financial executive, lives in Paris, and raised her well-mannered children rather strictly. Chitina’s brother, named Rodrigo after their father, became an economist, divorced once, and works for one of the big accounting firms in Madrid. The next in the family, Isabel, is a doctor and was a member of the Communist Party; she was jailed under Franco for her role as a student organizer in the school of medicine where she studied. Her husband, Angel, a fellow ex-Communist, worked underground organizing and doing agitprop for the party, producing banned newspapers for the workers. he was jailed under Franco and tortured as well. When the socialists came, Isabel got a senior job in the Ministry of Health and today helps run several hospitals; Angel works in public relations. Rodrigo’s youngest child, Elena, was in a Marxist-Leninist splinter faction group and was underground for several months during the seventies. Elena, an architect, has two children by different fathers; now divorced, she lives with a man she has no plans to marry.

I may miss parts of the old Spain but there is no question that for all the people I know things are much better now. Spain has joined the rest of Europe and the freedom they have has changed everything. It is not just an exterior question of politics-of being able to speak freely and have a lively press and the right to vote for whomever you want- but a very interior question as well. Under Franco, women could not get passports or open a bank account without their husbands’ permission. Women under twenty-five could not marry without parental consent. The transition has meant sexual liberation as well as freedom of expression.

How did Spain change so quickly and painlessly? The short answer is that a middle class grew up during the late years of Franco and efforts were made to train a new generation of professionals in places like Germany, the United States, and England. The Socialists worked to transform the army; Madrid allowed the different regions to develop their independence and these mini-nations gained new status within the larger European context as a result of Spain’s participation in the European Union. Money was spent on education and on health and as the economy grew Spaniards naturally became more like other Europeans-they took fewer siestas and became less isolated in their thinking. Today, a television show set in Madrid in the late Franco era is widely watched, but in general Spain’s repressive past is largely forgotten and discussed only rarely. In fact, Spain had an economic transformation first, then a cultural and then a political one, the opposite of many Eastern European nations that began with a political transformation and then waited for culture and economics to follow.

Spain is a lesson to us all. Its Socialist Party’s policies toward the Catalans are a model for many other countries-such as Turkey-that have to find ways of living with separatist movements. So much of what was said about Spain-that Democracy was not a natural form of government for the Spaniards who had tried it for only a few months, during the first republic in the 187Os and again for a few years in the thirties, before it was cut short by the Civil War, that there was no civil society, that levels of education were too low for democracy to develop-is still being said about so many authoritarian regimes in the world-from Africa to Asia. But Spain shows that enormous changes can happen, that a people and a country can be transformed in a very short time.

Copyright Center For Social Research and Education Oct-Dec 2003

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