When I was in seventh grade in Chicago, a girl in my class who had moved to the US from Spain, Paloma Larramendi, stood up one day and gave her full name. Maybe we all had to do it—I don’t really remember. I just remember her doing it.
What she recited was:
“My name is Paloma María Eugenia Gabriela González de Fernández de Mutis de Larramendi.”
In my memory I hear these names rolling out with rolled Rs and rounded vowels for something like several minutes. I’m sure it did not take Paloma nearly that long to say her name, but as an American kid I was used to people having just a first, middle, and last name, and that was all. I had never heard of anything more than three names, except in very rare cases when someone had a second middle name because of a dead grandparent.
As Paloma recited this long name, which was more of a poem than a name, I felt as though I were being lifted and transported into some mysterious world in which the air was different and unknown forces moved people about in ways unknown to me. I was dumbfounded, and I remember that I looked around the room to see if any of my comrades were stunned the way I was. But I saw no sign of surprise on their faces. Mark Cleary, who did not even have a middle name, was sitting at his desk, blasé as always and probably wondering if any of this would be on a test later. And Harold Steinman was too busy passing notes to Edward Fuller to have even heard her. Not even Emily Gardiner, usually the most sensitive among us and given to writing poetry, seemed to have taken much notice.
When Paloma finished, she seemed quite satisfied with herself, and before she sat down again at her desk she smiled as though she were in communication with something that none of us could quite understand. Paloma’s act of rolling out her complete name was evidently a powerful moment for her.
In the way of Americans, the kids in my class tended to shun anyone who was different or foreign, and Paloma was both of those things. She had a foreign accent, her clothes were old-fashioned, and she was clumsy at all sports. That was enough in any American junior high at that time to make her an outcast. Not every country is this way, incidentally. A Brazilian family I know did an exchange with a North American one: the son of the American family was treated as a wonderful, exotic apparition in Rio de Janeiro, and on his first day at school all of the girls came up and kissed him. When the Brazilian family sent their daughter north the following year, they were surprised that she could not make friends because, as one student told her, she was “weird.”
I was no better than any of my fellow students. I would love to be able to say that I befriended Paloma, but I did not. In fact, it is probably just as well that I did not know that “paloma” meant “dove” in Spanish, because I might have teased her about it.
After Paloma’s one brief, glowing moment I never really noticed her again. She may have been in the same high school choir as I, but if she was, I have absolutely no memory of her at rehearsals or concerts. In fact, I thought of her again only when I sat down to write this essay. I Googled her name and discovered that there is indeed a Paloma Larramendi Wilson in the Chicago area, so I assumed that she must have found love and marriage in some fashion, most likely followed by children as well.
Indeed, Spain and all things Spanish pretty much disappeared from my consciousness. I fell in love with France and things French. France was the land of grand culture and refinement (somehow I had this idea despite knowing almost nothing about French history and French customs). I also had the idea that the French language was superior to all others, as were French food and wine (about which I also knew next to nothing), and before the end of my first year at university I ran away to France, determined to become as French as any American could.
I did pretty well in that regard, and Spain was not on my horizon in the least. Occasionally you would see a Spanish car or some Spanish tourists in France, but they always looked poor and out-of-date and a bit lost in the stylish French cities. The Spanish had none of the chic airs that both the French and the Italians had. Spain was, for me, a sort of dusty, barren expanse that had been Fascist for many years and had nothing to offer beyond Picasso and bullfights. And anyway, Picasso ended up a French citizen, and if you wanted bullfights, they had them in the south of France.
Spain only came into my thoughts again when, years later, as a graduate student I had a Fulbright grant to live in Paris for a year. That winter happened to be bitterly cold, and a Dutch friend of mine, Franz, suggested in February that we take a trip to Morocco. Franz had a car, and we could drive across Spain to Algeciras, then grab a ferry across the strait to Morocco. This sounded like a great idea, and not too expensive, so we packed our things and began our trip. Just before we left Paris I bought a little Spanish grammar at the Gibert Jeune bookstore: Larousse’s L’Espagnol en quatre-vingt leçons.
Franz insisted that we make a pause in Madrid, stopping to see a Dutch woman he knew there who was living with a Spanish fellow. I could sense that behind this request was his hope that maybe he might have some success with her, and I agreed to spend a few days in Madrid. But I was adamant that I did not want to get stuck there for any longer than seventy-two hours. I didn’t care about Spain, I didn’t care about the Spanish, and all that mattered to me was getting to Morocco
In many ways Spain was just as I had pictured it. It was dry and dusty, and the churches were gaudy Baroque affairs with ornate gilt altars and adorned with kitschy effigies of saints before which women dressed from head to toe in black knelt in prayer. This was a far cry from the lofty Gothic cathedrals of France. Plus the cities were scarred by cheap-looking modern apartment buildings stuck in between nicer older ones—so different from the calm, gray blocks of elegant immeubles in Paris. The Spanish must enjoy making their cities ugly, I decided. The only thing that interested me even remotely was what I discovered in the Larousse grammar book, namely that French and Spanish were almost the same language. I had already tried my hand at both German and Latin, so I knew how different languages could be. But Spanish—it was as though the Spanish language was rolling along on a track that was parallel to French. In the car, as Franz drove, I would excitedly point things out to him: “Regarde-moi ça! French ‘université’ is Spanish ‘universidad,’ ‘liberté’ is ‘libertad,’ ‘unité’ is ‘unidad.’” I can’t believe it!” It was a joke of sorts: someone had taken the French language, passed it through a linguistic house of mirrors, and called the distorted results “Spanish”!
Franz and I made our way to Madrid, stopping for a night in San Sebastián and then Salamanca. A Spanish friend in Toronto had once commented to me that Paris did not have many bars and cafés, which at the time had surprised me because Parisian cafés are numerous and celebrated in books and movies. But when I saw Spanish towns, I understood the comment immediately. In Spain it was not a matter of one café on each corner but rather seven or eight along any given block. The places all looked pretty much the same and in general they were not very attractive, being cavernous affairs with neon lighting and sawdust on the floor. But they seemed to have people in them at all hours of the day and night. I encountered something similar with the food: it was simple fare, and there appeared to be no interest in the aesthetics of presentation—so important to the French—but the portions were plentiful and the bill was never exorbitant. By the time we got to Madrid, I had learned a few Spanish phrases for ordering food: por favor, la cuenta, and a common dish that bars always had: gambas al ajillo. In fact, gambas al ajillo probably bears some responsibility for first nudging me to change my conceptions of what made for good food. This dish is among the simplest of Spanish cuisine: shrimp and garlic fried in olive oil, usually with a shot of sherry and perhaps some paprika. It was not the cheapest of the tapas, but every bar was capable of making it and serving it good and hot with some bread on the side. It occurred to me that Spain might have some redeeming qualities.
Franz and I made it to Madrid and we found the apartment where the Dutch woman, Loes, was living with a fellow named Guillermo. To my surprise, Guillermo spoke a fair amount of French, although with a heavy accent. What is more, he was very welcoming. After insisting we have a drink, he made a few calls and found us a cheap pensión and told us through Loes to be ready to go out that night.
The salida that night was my first introduction to the Spanish or at least to the Madrilenian mentality. We did not go out until almost 10:00, and when we did we walked up from Embajadores toward the Puerta del Sol. Guillermo then ushered us into a small bar, and I saw immediately that we were meeting a group of half a dozen of his friends. Guillermo made an announcement that was clearly to say that we were friends from France—I caught the word París—and everyone jumped up to shake our hands and welcome us. Almost immediately beers had been ordered as well as small plates of tapas, and a shouted conversation in incomprehensible Spanish swirled around us, everyone talking at once. Franz and I sat there a bit stunned as the food and empty glasses piled up on the table.
It was well past midnight when Guillermo and his friends tumbled out of the bar and into the street. I could sense that there was a discussion about whether to go someplace else next. But this was the middle of the week, and people had to go to work in the morning. “¡Trabajo!” some of them kept shouting, “¡Trabajo!,” and after a couple of minutes I realized that this was the Spanish word for “work.” In the end they decided to call it a night. At the time Guillermo himself had a job in a bank and he had to be there by 8 am. Days later as Guillermo and I were walking along a street I asked him how he and his friends could go out so late during the week, then get up and go to work early the next morning. I said that I understood that in the summer they took a siesta in the afternoon, but this was the winter. Guillermo stopped walking, turned to me, and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Lorenzo,” he said solemnly, “for about six months of the year we are just very tired.” Then he added, “But one day I will quit the bank and open a restaurant. I might have to work long hours, but at least I will be my own boss.”
At the time I could hardly communicate verbally with any of Guillermo’s friends. Most Spaniards do not speak French, having what is almost an allergy to France and anything French, largely for historical reasons. But what surprised me was that each friend seemed to accept me into their group as one of them, simply on the basis of Guillermo’s having introduced me. This was a phenomenon that I was going to come to know in Spain: introduce me to your friend, and your friend is now my friend too. I was used to France where you could introduce a friend of yours to someone, and that person might diffidently shake hands but in no way commit to any sort of friendship. The French attitude seemed to be I will take six months to decide if I want to be friends with this person, thank you very much. But in Spain the bond was immediate and unqualified. Months later, when I returned to Spain for a month in the summer and began to learn Spanish, late one night in a bar after a considerable amount of alcohol, an acquaintance of Guillermo’s, Manolo, was earnestly telling me something. Because of my limited Spanish, it took Manolo several tries, but at last I understood what he was saying: namely, that if I ever came to Madrid and Guillermo was out of town, I could stay with him and his wife for as long as I wanted.
The Spanish have something they call convivencia. The word literally means “living with.” But it is much more than that. Convivencia has to do with the social bonds among people and the daily communication among them. In Spain, each person is part of a large web of family and friends, and very few Spaniards go even a day without seeing a friend or talking to someone. Not that these contacts need to be profound. I read once that a Spanish person stops into a bar 2.7 times per day on average. This might just be a quick visit of ten minutes or so. For example, many Spaniards stop off at a bar to have a café con leche and a churro for breakfast. They sit at the counter, chat a moment with the person behind the zinc, glance at the newspaper, pay, and leave. All of this takes only five or ten minutes. But it establishes a bond, a rhythm to life, a sense of community.
Certainly, the customer could make coffee at home and read the newspaper in his or her apartment. But there is something about saying hello every day to someone you know, asking how the family is, and commenting on the weather or the headlines that matters to the Spanish. That is convivencia. For that very reason, people often have “their” habitual café or “their” bar, and they pop into the same one every morning, or just after lunch for an espresso, or in the afternoon for a quick caña (glass of beer) or two. The real point is to see a friendly face, to ask and be asked how things are going, to chat about the news or sports. If a day goes by without a regular showing up, people begin asking, “Have you seen Paco?” or “Is Antonio out of town?” If, as the French writer Raymond Radiguet once said, “Happiness is in habits,” convivencia is the great Spanish expression of that idea.
After four or five days in Madrid, Franz and I continued on our trip. He had been unsuccessful with Loes—in fact, they had had quite a falling out—so we packed up and headed south. We made it to Morocco, which might have seduced me at another time in my life. But by then I was smitten with Spain: with hot, dry, and, yes, dusty Spain. Spain, with its simple bars and its lack of elegance, and with its directness of human relations. I was completely taken with the way it was haunted by the Moorish past that still hung in the air, particularly in the south. I was fascinated by Córdoba where, after the seven-centuries-long Reconquista in which the Christians gradually drove out the Muslims, the Christians built a Catholic church that gushed up right through the middle of the graceful arches in the center of the mosque. I was equally taken with the whitewashed villages of the Alpujarras high on the hillsides above Granada and where the last Muslims took refuge after the fall of the Alhambra in 1492.
I wanted more of all of this. I wanted more of unpretentious Spanish living. I wanted more of apartment buildings where people called to each other over the street and hung laundry on their balconies (something the French never seemed to do). I wanted more of people breaking into song whether they could sing well or not and traipsing through the city streets at all hours of the night, enjoying themselves. I had noticed that because many restaurants were cheap, Spaniards took pleasure in ordering more food and wine than they could possibly consume for the simple reason that doing so made even the most humble people feel rich.
And I loved that their jamones and their embutidos had many different levels of quality, so that a person could have a plate of fiambres (cold cuts) for almost nothing, but if you had some serious money in your pocket you could get a serving of jamón ibérico de bellota—the top quality ham from pigs that had been raised on acorns—the taste of which would stay with you for the rest of your life and the price of which would empty your pockets for some time to come.
But passing through Spain also made me begin to be dimly aware of something else in the Spanish character: something steely and hard. The Reconquista, for example, so celebrated in Spanish history, was a seven-hundred- year-long series of battles in which Christians fought a holy war against the Muslim rulers who had taken over most of the Peninsula. If the Muslim rulers had been surprisingly tolerant of other religions—and indeed both Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their faiths—the Christians did not return the favor. After the Reconquista, proving that one’s genealogical line had no Jews or Muslims in it became almost an obsession in Spain, even though there had been so much intermingling that such purity was a fantasy. And Spaniards were strangely proud of having driven out not only the Muslims in 1492 but the Jews as well. And of course there was the long period of oppressive Fascist rule by Generalísimo Franco after he triumphed in the bloody Civil War from 1936 to 1939. How to put these two faces of Spain together so that they faced one another?
As I have said, I returned to Spain the following summer. A friend in Madrid who was going to be absent for a month lent me his apartment in a working-class district, and I signed up for a series of lectures at the Complutense University. I quickly found that I could understand formal teaching quite well, and there were professors lecturing on Spanish art and on Peninsular history and on famous writers. I started to have a feeling for Spanish history and the cultural developments that I had always looked down upon.
I say I could understand university lectures. That did not mean I could understand the Madrileños out in the city streets when they talked. The people of the capital city speak very rapidly, slurring together their words, and what they are saying often seems to bubble up from their guts and to get spit out so fast that it is often hard to believe they have uttered an entire sentence. And when they are old—as, for example the ancianos who stand around in the bars bantering with the employees—the fact that they were smokers for many years means that you can’t tell when they are grumbling about something and speaking actual words or just clearing their throat of phlegm.
That summer it was as though I had regressed to being a toddler learning to speak. The group of Spanish friends from the winter would invite me with them—perhaps amused by this americano who seemed to know so little about drinking and eating—and most of the time I had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do. It might be that we were just going out drinking; it might be that we were buying tickets to a play I could not possibly follow; it might be that we were going to cook a paella in the sand of a river bank just outside the city; one time it was that we were headed to someone’s country cabin three hours away for a weekend. I never asked questions. I just followed along with whatever we did. All I needed to know was where to meet them and when.
The “where” was usually quite clear. The “when,” however, was somewhat less so. Once when a friend said to swing by his place at mediodía (midday), I asked what time he meant on a clock. A good thing I did! His answer was, “Oh, about 4 pm.” Given how late Spanish days went, noon was hours before midday in his thinking.
Another important thing, I quickly discovered, was not to try to match my Spanish friends drink for drink. They seemed to have an astonishing ability to drink large quantities of alcohol and not seem drunk. I am sure that this is medically impossible, but it happens to be culturally very possible—a bit the way Socrates is reported to have been able to drink and drink and still be sober long after his buddies had passed out.
As my Spanish improved, I began to pick up the Madrid accent and the various modismos they use. A friend of mine said once that you can get through a lot of Spanish conversations using only the word “¡Vale!” Basically, “vale” means “good.” But it can mean many other things as well. It is “okay” when you want to show that you are in agreement. Or you might mumble “Vale, vale” as a person is talking just to show that you are still listening. In short if you don’t have anything else to say, just say “vale” because if you let another person talk for too long and you haven’t interjected that word at least once, he or she will stop, look at you, and ask “¿Vale?” to make sure you are really still there.
But the other thing is, only Spaniards say “vale” as an interjection. You can travel for months through Latin America and never hear that interjection, and if you do hear it one day, you will know that you have run into a Spaniard.
Also: the Spanish pronounce the “z” and the “c” between vowels as the kind of “th” we have in an English word like “thing.” Actually, the Spanish pronunciation is a bit thicker and a bit more like a lisp, but that is a small detail. The important thing is that “s” and “z/c” are pronounced very differently in Spain. Why this is important is because in Latin America, all three letters are pronounced as an “s”; there is no difference between them. So, again, if you travel for months through Latin America and then you bump into someone who pronounces the “z”s or the “c”s as “th”s, you will know that the person is Spanish. Well, not quite. Because, as it happens, there is one small area in Colombia where they still speak the most pure Castilian—the Spanish of the conquistadores hundreds of years ago—for which reason they sound more Spanish than the Spanish. They still pronounce “z” and “c” as “th.” But as a general rule, the distinction between New World and Old World holds to this day.
The Spanish I speak has its own peculiarities, the result, of course, of the particular ways in which I learned it. A year or so after my month in Spain I returned to North America, and almost immediately I fell in love with a woman from Argentina. As it happens, although Argentines speak Spanish, their accent is completely different from that of the Spaniards—and I am not just talking about the “c”s and “z”s and “s”s. Because of waves of Italian immigrants in Argentina, the Argentines speak the language with a kind of lilt that no one else has. It’s like having a strong Texan accent in English.
In general the Spanish hate the Argentine accent. Actually, so do a lot of other countries in Latin America. But in Spain, Argentines have a very bad reputation for being cheats and swindlers while also managing to be very arrogant. During the 1980s and ’90s, the Argentine accent was sufficient to be denied an apartment that was up for rent because too many Argentines had run out on their landlords.
Love is of course a great teacher of languages. It didn’t take long for me to become quite fluent in Spanish—in Argentine Spanish, that is—complete with the Argentine accent. And it is hard to convey the dismay this caused my Spanish friends. My own friend Guillermo once put his hand on my shoulder and said to me very somberly, “Lorenzo, you speak perfect Spanish, but with the worst accent in the world!”
Once, when I had to go to Barcelona, a friend told me to get in touch with his good friend Gabriela, because I could surely stay with her for a few days. He said she was going through a hard time because she had just broken up with her partner, and it would do her good.
I called Gabriela’s phone number several times, but I always got her answering machine and would just leave a message. I got to worrying that she would not get back to me and I had even started to scout out cheap hotels. Finally one day Gabriela called me, and it was immediately clear that she was not enthusiastic about my visit. “For how many days?” she asked. Then she followed up with, “You don’t know anyone else?” Long pause. “Well, okay, I guess. ¡Vale!” This was surely the least enthusiastic vale I had ever heard.
When the day arrived, I set down my bag and said, “Listen, Gabriela, pick whatever restaurant you want in Barcelona and let me take you to dinner there tonight. Te invito.” So, we went to dinner and talked for hours, then we went to a bar and drank for several hours more. Enough drinks and people say what they really think. Around 2 am, Gabriela looked me straight in the eyes and said, “My friend, I have to tell you that I almost said no to your staying at my place.” I told her that I already knew that. She went on: “It was your accent, you see. You know that I have been going through a hard time. Well, every time I heard your voice on my answering machine with that Argentine accent, I thought, ‘Shuck and jive! Shuck and jive! This guy must be pure shuck and jive.’” The word she used has stayed with me to this day: ¡fanfarrón! ¡fanfarrón!
For a number of years in the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, I spent a fair amount of time in Madrid in the summer, working with old manuscripts at the Biblioteca Nacional, the national library. I would arrive at the library in the morning, show my credentials, and head up to the manuscript room to consult a series of rare medieval manuscripts I needed for a book I was writing. As it happened, the same letters of introduction that gave me access to priceless manuscripts also gave me free access to the Prado, the most important museum of art in Spain. All the great Spanish painters of earlier centuries are there: Murillo, Zurbarán, El Greco.
The Prado also houses many paintings by the great Baroque painter Diego Velázquez, including the life-size canvas that is often considered to be the greatest of all Baroque paintings, Las Meninas. In Las Meninas everything about a normal portrait is turned around, and the canvas depicts what the person sitting for a portrait would see, namely the scene of Velázquez as he is painting at his canvas. Velázquez looks out from the painting at his “subjects” and yet he also manages to include them in the painting by having them reflected in a mirror at the back of the room. The blurred images of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana are in fact quite recognizable. They would be the ones sitting for their portrait.
Much has been written about the ways in which Las Meninas is clever and playful and yet also very profound. And many artists have re-used its images in paintings of their own, most famously Picasso who painted numerous versions of Las Meninas.
On some of those hot summer days, after I had ducked out for some lunch, I would head to the Prado instead of going back to the national library. Certainly I stood many times in front of Las Meninas—stood, that is, where Philip IV and his wife would have sat for their portrait—and looked at Diego Velázquez who stared straight back at me over the centuries.
But in fact I spent far more time in a small room that was less visited.
Among the Spanish painters, the last great “Old Master,” who is also surprisingly modern, was Francisco Goya who painted vigorously in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, dying in Bordeaux, France, in 1828. A fascinating and complex man, Goya went deaf as the result of illness and retired to live in a house that he baptized The House of the Deaf Man (La Quinta del Sordo). There, late in his life, he painted a series of dark (and rather disturbing) paintings on the walls of his house. These paintings, known as the Black Paintings (Pinturas negras), gradually came to surround him as he covered his walls with them.
The Black Paintings are like nothing anyone has produced either before or after. Goya, who had been a very successful court painter (he was in fact the official portraitist of the royal family), pulled out from his inner self the pessimism and outrage he felt after living through a period of corruption, war, and pestilence. Some of the images are absolutely horrific. Perhaps the most disturbing, and certainly the most violent, is the one known as “Saturn Eating His Son,” which depicts the ancient Greek myth of Saturn devouring his children so they could not overthrow him. Goya depicts a Saturn who has already eaten his son’s head and right arm and is on the verge of ripping off the next arm with his teeth. It is one of those paintings that you know is a work of genius but that you would never want to have on your living room wall. And yet Goya not only created this image, but he chose to hang it in his own dining room.
Other images of violence in this series include a painting of two men bludgeoning each other with cudgels and another that depicts the biblical tale of Judith cutting off Holofernes’s head. Among other “dark” scenes are a witches’ Sabbath, decrepit old men slurping soup, and old women cackling.
The Pinturas negras were housed on the ground floor of the Prado, in a room that was cool even on the hottest summer days. Moreover, most of the time it was deserted. Occasionally someone would come in specifically to see the Pinturas negras. Or at times an innocent visitor would wander in, having no idea of these works, and either be fascinated or else repulsed and quick to leave.
As a result, most of the time I had the paintings all to myself and could stand in front of them for as long as I wished. The range of subject matter was extraordinary—from a fantastical vision with floating people to the skull-like heads of poor people performing daily activities. I discovered that if I chose one and let myself stand before it for long enough, I would gradually pass into it, deeper and deeper, until I felt that the image almost enveloped me.
The painting I spent the most time in front of was the simplest one of all. It goes by several names: “The Dog” (El Perro), “The Drowning Dog” (El Perro hundiendose), and “The Partly Drowned Dog” (El Perro semihundido). What it depicts in the bottom register of the large painting is simply the head of a dog that appears above the level of what must be a hill of sand. The dog is drowning in sand, and all but his innocent head has already been swallowed up. The rest of the painting is simply a wall of color—of sand. In other words, remove the dog’s head and the painting is a minimalist, abstract painting more like Rothko than any nineteenth-century painter.
There is something about the image that makes you feel helpless. You want to intervene, to help. An innocent, ordinary dog is sinking into the earth, and in a few more minutes it will have disappeared and there will be only this expanse of endless sand. The dog does not yelp, does not even look panicked. Perhaps it does not quite understand what is happening—that its existence is about to be snuffed out.
As I gazed again and again at this painting, I felt that I had come into contact with the unspoken sadness and pathos of Spain—the terrible undercurrent to the cheerful, social world of convivencia. For Goya Spain was the world of the Napoleonic wars and the massacres perpetrated by the marauding armies. A century later such acts were repeated in the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and the repression by the Fascists after their victory. The violence, the repression was always there, threatening to pull you down and suffocate you. The Civil War was never really resolved, and the right wing was always plotting a comeback, even after Franco’s death and the inauguration of democracy. They even tried to stage a coup d’état in 1981 but failed.
For the first time I realized that perhaps the mysterious air that seemed to surround Paloma Larramendi when she recited her long name had something to do with this quietly suffocating world that Goya was depicting. Paloma was definitely not fun-loving; she never seemed alegre, to use a Spanish word. I now wondered for the first time how or why she and her family had come to America. Her long name was a throwback to older Spanish ways—to the world of Velázquez and Goya. Had her family been caught up in the terrible carnage of the Civil War and its aftermath? I had known a couple of elderly people in France who had made the trek across the border from Barcelona in order to escape Franco’s forces, only to be held in terrible concentration camps for years in the south of France. My Argentine paramour’s own father was a Republican who had ended up in Argentina because it was either that or endless jail.
So that strange, alien world in which Paloma’s name swirled, was it perhaps the last whiff of a lost world, a world that had been swallowed up by the cataclysms of the twentieth century like that dog in the Goya painting? Were those long names slowly sinking into the sand of modern American ways? As a result was it no surprise that Paloma Mariá Eugenia Gabriela González de Fernández de Mutis de Larramendi was now reduced, as I discovered when I looked my old classmate up on Google, to simply Paloma Larramendi Wilson? Her name was truncated. In my mind I associated that truncation with Goya, whose body, when it was exhumed in Bordeaux and sent back to Spain, was also quite literally truncated: that is, the cadaver was missing its head, and Goya’s head has never been found.
All this is to say that somewhere just beneath the surface of Spanish convivencia are the resentments and divisions that continue to churn. After the death of Franco in 1975 there was almost a frenzy of forgetting the whole Fascist period. The young people wanted nothing to do with the old and their ways.
Spanish, like French, Italian, Portuguese, and countless other languages has a formal and an informal way of addressing people. But in Spain, the formal Usted mostly disappeared after Franco’s death. People wanted to be egalitarian, modern, “with it.” Everyone was suddenly using the informal tu unless speaking to a government official or an elderly person. In France if you ever walked into a store and used “tu,” you would be thrown out on your ear. In Spain, however, a friend of mine asking a question at the information booth in the train station out of respect began with the formal “Usted,” but no sooner had she started, the agent cried, “!Por favor! Are you trying to make me feel older than I am?”
Suddenly everyone was a socialist and everyone was for the basic freedoms of the liberal democracies of Western Europe. But the old divisions have never been distant, whether of class or geography. Many non-Spanish do not realize that Spain, like Italy, was for many centuries a conglomeration of inherited realms. The Spanish monarchy really came into existence as such only with the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, but even then it was not what we mean by the modern term “Spain”; it was just the union of two powerful realms. Even such a momentous event as the Conquest of the Americas was carried out in the name of Isabella, not in the name of Spain, and the conquered continent did not belong to a nation but to the Castilian realm. There were periods when modern-day Portugal was under the power of the Spanish crown, and periods when it was not. Ditto for Catalonia, the area that includes Barcelona. In 1640 , the king’s powerful first minister, the Conde- Duque Olivares, told King Phillip IV that his most important task was to keep hold of both Portugal and Catalonia. But Phillip IV was a weak king, not very interested in running the government, and both provinces rebelled and gained their independence that year. Spain never got Portugal back. As for Catalonia, Spain recovered it, and as a result to this day half of its people consider it an occupied country.
Catalonia is the richest and most industrialized portion of the country. It also has its own language, Catalan, which is not a dialect of Spanish but a sister language that derives from a different form of spoken Latin in the years of the late Roman Empire. Under Franco, people were forbidden to speak Catalan, and children received corporal punishment if they were caught using the language on the playground at school. Since the death of Franco, there has been a resurgence of Catalan, and it is now the language of school instruction and of the television and radio in the province.
But the tensions are still alive. The distrust between Madrid and the semi- autonomous province of Catalonia did not go away when Franco died. When Spain first began to install high-speed trains that could go 250 kms/hr, the most logical thing would have been to build a line between Madrid and Barcelona, since they are the two most important cities in the country. But no. Long after the high-speed AVE trains were zipping between Madrid and Seville or Madrid and Burgos, the best one could get between Barcelona and Madrid was a traditional, eight-hour overnight sleeper. It took at least half a decade before the Barcelona–Madrid line was even drafted.
The Catalan people resent that since they are the richest area of Spain they pay more taxes than any other region, and they are quick to point out that their tax monies go disproportionately to the southern areas where, as they like to say, people are lazy and no one works very hard. This is a longstanding division between the north and the south; the northerners see themselves as industrious and serious while the southerners are irresponsible spendthrifts who do nothing but play flamenco all day and drink. But go down south and they will make fun of the stern northerners, especially the people of Catalonia, who, they say, think only about how much money they can earn by working day and night. The Catalan people, the people of Andalucia will tell you, just work and work, and then they die without ever having lived!
Both views are exaggerated, of course. But if you are going to move to Catalonia, you had better become as Catalan as possible if you want to have any success. Even then, it is hard to break into the rather reserved society. Such was the case of my friend Guillermo. Having left the bank behind many years earlier, he now migrated from Madrid to the lovely medieval city of Girona, fifty kilometers north of Barcelona, where he opened a restaurant. Guillermo had always dreamed of having a gracious restaurant where the Spanish and French culinary traditions could be fused, and Girona, halfway between Barcelona and the French border, was the perfect place to set one up. Once there, Guillermo knew he needed to make an effort to become Catalanized, so he immediately began taking Catalan language classes. He also joined a Castells team.
I should explain about Castells. This Catalan sport dates back hundreds of years. “Castell” means “castle” in Catalan, but in this case it refers to human “castles”—towers of different sorts that have five or six “floors” of people, each of which is scaffolded on the shoulders of the people below. Quite simply, the base is made from the joined ring of the strongest men, then the first floor above is mounted on their shoulders. Each successive “floor” uses lighter and lighter—hence younger and younger—people standing on the shoulders of the level below, until the final person, a little girl of about five, scampers up the backs of the people to the very top and waves one arm. Then they slowly bring the castle down, level by level.
Each town has its own team, and they meet and compete, building human towers of varying complexity that can go a hundred meters or more up into the air. Of course, sometimes the tower loses its equilibrium and the people come crashing down on one another. There have been a few cases of people getting killed, and there is an ongoing argument about whether the girl who goes to the top should wear a helmet.
My friend Guillermo was part of the Castell tower base. And he studied Catalan very hard for a couple of years. Finally he began to be accepted (I would not say integrated) into the Catalan world.
But as I say, the old tensions are still there, just below the surface. As it happened, after a long period with no partner, Guillermo met a woman, Neus. She would come to the restaurant from time to time with a male friend, and with each visit Guillermo and Neus spoke a little more. They went from simply saying hello to chatting a bit about food and wine to exchanging ideas about various recipes. Finally one day Guillermo insisted on giving Neus and her friend an after-dinner digestive on the house, and then as she was paying the bill, Neus said quite boldly, “I will meet you for coffee tomorrow morning in the café across the street, yes?”
That was how they began things. Neus confessed that she had had her eye on Guillermo since the first time she went to his restaurant, and Guillermo told her that he had wanted to get to know her for months, but she always came “acompañada.”
Neus just laughed. “Paco?” she said. “But Paco’s gay! You didn’t know?”
Over the next six months or so, their relationship grew until it became quite serious. Bit by bit they became what you would call “a couple.” That was all very fine and well in Girona, which is a cosmopolitan university town, and among their social group, no one really cared. However, Neus is Catalan through and through. That is to say, she comes from a small Catalan village where everyone speaks Catalan and never Spanish. For them, Spain is a distant country where the people are always looking to oppress the people of Catalonia and where they speak a foreign tongue. So for the longest time, Neus said nothing to her family about Guillermo. Once in a while, if asked whether there was any man in her life, she would shrug and give a noncommittal answer. Over time, however, she slowly let it be known that she was seeing someone, yes. But that was all she said. Of course, the family assumed that the man was Catalan. After all, he had to be!
As the relationship between Neus and Guillermo progressed, they started talking about living together. They were spending all of their time in each other’s company so there was little point in maintaining two apartments. At last, Guillermo moved his belongings into Neus’s apartment, and it became obvious that Neus would have to tell her family the whole truth about Guillermo. Her mother occasionally pestered her about who this man named Guillermo was— she had by now given a first name—and would demand to know when she was going to present him to the family. Finally, Neus drove to her parents’ village with the express intention of telling them the truth. It took her a full day and night of talking evasively around the topic. But finally, over coffee the next morning, she told her mother the dreaded fact: Guillermo was not in fact Catalan. Not even Valenciano. In fact, he was from Madrid.
“Madrid!” her mother shrieked. “Madrid!”
Neus’s mother began to beat her chest, fearing that her heart was failing her. This was betrayal! She gasped for breath. This was consorting with the enemy! How could Neus do such a thing? Neus was to be disowned! Disinherited! How could she do this to her aging parents?
Such were the harsh words, followed by tears and doors slammed, and it ended with Neus stomping out of the familial house and driving off in a huff. Then came weeks of silence and finally long, tearful phone calls during which Neus made an effort to convince her parents that Guillermo was not a monster but rather a perfectly good human being who loved her and who loved Catalonia. Slowly, over the course of months, the family realized that things were not going to change and so they made a sort of peace with the whole affair. Neus had her life in Girona with this Spanish fellow, and in the twenty-first century there was nothing they could do about it.
A meeting was arranged at a neutral café in the Plaça Mayor in Banyuls, and things came off as well as could be expected. Neus’s parents were relieved to find that Guillermo at least spoke Catalan, even if he did have a Madrileño accent. But even so, when Neus goes to visit her parents each Sunday, she always goes alone. To this day, Guillermo has never been to Neus’s village. Moreover, even when Guillermo and Neus got married, they did so in a civil ceremony with just two witnesses and only told her parents afterward.
In the past three years, Catalonia has renewed its bid for independence. It held a referendum in 2017, then unilaterally declared independence on October 27, 2019, in defiance of the Spanish government. Madrid came down with a heavy hand, sending in the police to break up the voting and jailing the referendum leaders on grounds of sedition. Guillermo, as one might expect, is heavily committed in the independista camp. I of course come from a country that fought a civil war over the question of secession, so Guillermo and I do not always coincide in our views. But that hardly matters.
What matters when I pass through Girona is friends, food, and wine. I have gone to market with Guillermo many mornings to buy supplies for the restaurant that day. To watch Guillermo in the mercado is to observe an intense series of calculations that cross his forehead rapidly as he looks over the ranges of produce and the long fish counters to see what is fresh and reflects on different combinations that could become the dishes at mediodía or for the dinner service at his restaurant. Sometimes he sends me off to one part of the market to get artichokes or tomatoes while he studies the varieties of shellfish that have come in. He consults me nominally because we know that I will be helping with the prep in the restaurant kitchen that day, but in truth he makes all the decisions himself. His expert eye is piercing as he ranges over the food stalls.
“¿Merluza?” he will ask. “¿Róbalo?” though I know that even as he is asking the question he has already made up his mind which kind of fish he wants. This is a good thing because while I am fine going off to the produce stand and getting any manner of vegetables or fruit, and I can do pretty well at the meat counter, the peixateria’s stand can leave my head spinning. A long row of different kinds of seafood goes on for fifty feet. The lexicon for all of the species is daunting, and, what is more, Spanish often has several names for a single species of fish or shellfish, and while every Spanish native knows the subtle differences between the terms, I have never quite mastered these intricacies. For shrimp there are at least four different words depending on the size and type; and from what I can tell, róbalo and lubina are both sea bass, though I would never venture to tell a Spaniard that they are the same. Occasionally there is a species that is completely unknown in North America.
Guillermo makes his decisions—sepia for a dish that is glazed with a special brandy, and dorado, a whitefish that is common in France and Spain, but virtually unknown in America. Guillermo might order ten fish at a time or three kilos of live crabs, and by the time we leave the market we can hardly carry all the bags the kilometer to the restaurant and into the tiny kitchen at the rear of the narrow restaurant. I might be set in charge of cleaning mussels or shucking oysters while Guillermo looks over his supplies. Then the deliveries begin—the provedores who wheel in crates of necessities. Wines get delivered by the case, though certain rare liqueurs are single bottles.
I am often surprised at how small restaurant kitchens are. Many are not much bigger than a bathroom, and yet they turn out eighty or a hundred covers every night. Guillermo’s is no exception. Miguel, Guillermo’s sous chef, shows up ninety minutes before they open for lunch, and in short order he is preparing some of the standard dishes that are always on the menu, all at once: pork feet stuffed with foie gras—a forced marriage of Spain and France—and a cherry gazpacho. He is also throwing together a tarte tatin. Guillermo’s restaurant fuses French and Spanish cuisine, and that has made it a darling of French tourists. But the tarte tatin is purely about finances. It is easy to make, it needs only three ingredients, and it is irresistible—key aspects for the bottom line.
Guillermo tasks me with setting the long row of tables. If the weather is fair, we put tables in the arcaded plaça outside as well. Tourists begin showing up at the door by noon, but Guillermo just growls that he is not open yet. The same thing happens in the evening. The restaurant opens at 8:30 pm, which is early by Spanish standards. But American tourists start asking to come in at 6. This brings out the most stern demeanor in Guillermo. Often, while the staff is eating—shortly before the restaurant opens—foreigners stand at the door and ask if they can come in. I have seen Guillermo look up from his plate and bark, “You don’t see that the lights are still off?”
Everything changes at 8:30. It is a little like going on stage. The lights go on, Guillermo greets everyone with a smile, shows them to a table, and describes the various dishes for them. The menu is available in Catalan, Spanish, French, and English. Guillermo had me do the English translation. He also had me add an item that is not on any of the other menus: “fresh garden salad.” Why, he asked me one day, do American tourists come to Spain and then decide to go on a diet and order salads? I said I had no answer. No other nationality orders them, he said.
Perhaps it is the puritanical side, I told him. Maybe after a week or two in Spain some people feel guilty about indulging in so much pleasure. Maybe they feel that they should have something a bit more austere.
“¡Coño!” Guillermo cries, using another term—and technically an obscene one—that only Spaniards say for the most part. “I will never understand your countr ymen!”
Before long, the restaurant is full, and a line is forming outside the door. When there are customers who only speak English, Guillermo sends me out to answer their questions. But I know that when I am not there, he is capable of responding in fractured English, and I suspect that people are more charmed by his English than mine.
Now the restaurant is packed, and you have almost to shout to be heard over the din of plates being set down and glasses being clinked. Conversations strike up between the closely packed tables, and by the time people leave they are often exchanging e-mail addresses with others who were complete strangers when they came in.
Conviviality, once again. ¡Convivencia! Spaniards and Catalans do not hesitate to ask who you are or where you are from. They are quick to make suggestions about the menu or to call Guillermo over and tell him to pour a glass of a dessert wine for the person at the next table. The desire, the need, the joy of human relations runs deep indeed, and for the time of a meal it does not matter if you are from Barcelona or Madrid, from New York or Munich. If you love good food, good wine, and good people, you are in the right place.
I have been writing this essay during the first months of the covid-19 pandemic. Spain has had terrible death rates, and people have been confined to their dwellings while the police are in the street to make sure orders are followed. In late April, Guillermo’s restaurant has been padlocked for over a month already, and he writes that he is trying not to panic about the finances. The United States has had more deaths than any other country so far, including China.
One of the interesting phenomena of this period is that people have reestablished contact with friends—sometimes with long-lost friends or ones they have not seen for many years. Something of the same thing happened in North America after the Twin Towers attack of 9/11, though the difference this time is that it is worldwide and people can visit each other virtually. Unable to travel to Spain as planned, I have visited Guillermo and Neus in their apartment by means of my laptop, and I have also been to Gabriela’s place high above Barcelona, and I am happy to report that they all are well.
Recently, Guillermo and I shared a virtual glass of wine together over the Internet: 6 pm my time, midnight his. We each opened an agreed upon bottle of a famous Priorat wine, Les Terrasses. In our conversation, we reminisced about the many dinners and wines we have shared over the years. Guillermo reminded me of the time we carried all the ingredients for a paella out to the countryside, built a fire under rocks, and cooked the dish right in the earth. He also recalled the first time I got to taste a Vega Sicilia Unico—Spain’s most famous wine.
“You were so inebriated,” Guillermo laughed, “you had to drink it lying down!”
“Only because you opened two other bottles first!” I shot back. “But I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
I said that for me the most memorable meal was in the early afternoon one summer in a little restaurant in the countryside near Ávila. We had a classic mar y montaña (“surf and turf”). Guillermo and the owner were friends, and at the end of the meal the owner set down a carafe of brandy from 1946 on our table and said, “Drink all you want. This is on me.”
We each had a glass of the brandy, and to this day I can remember all the details. The brandy had a kind of deep vanilla resonance that carried you away to a world of dark furniture and your grandmother’s cooking—to a time of our parents and grandparents who had known all the privations of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.
Just as Guillermo was pouring some more of the licor, two men came in and sat at another table across the small room. Guillermo leaned over to me and said, “Those men are both bullfighters—toreros. The old one is Antoñete and he is very famous. His torso is criss-crossed with scars from being gored. The younger one is Curro Vásquez, and he is up and coming.” Guillermo had seen Antoñete in action, and he described some of the passes with the bull that were most memorable. While the brandy rolled around on our tongues, Guillermo talked about the history of bullfighting—how Juan Belmonte revolutionized it in 1914 and turned it into an art when he first began to do passes that let the horns almost graze his body; how a nun in the early twentieth century, Doña María de Gaucín, left the convent for a career in the ring, then returned to the convent when she retired; how almost every torero gets gored numerous times during the course of a career. At the end of the spectacle, he said, the audience comes to a decision about the torero. “Books always talk about waving white handkerchiefs to the presidente and the trophy of an ear,” he said. “But there is a whole range of responses. Sometimes there is simply absolute silence, the silence of admiration for such a beautiful performance.”
Guillermo poured a final portion into our snifters.
“The bullfight is about living—about living and almost dying,” he said. “The torero knows what we would all like to ignore—that death can arrive at any moment. When he kills the bull, he has defeated death, but only for one day.” Then he added, “You people in North America criticize the bullfight, but what do you know? Most of you have never seen one. You shoot people in the street but you are outraged by the corrida de toros.”
When we were ready to leave, Guillermo picked up the carafe, and we walked over to the toreros’ table.
“With my respects,” Guillermo said with a little bow to Antoñete. “I saw you in action many times.”
Antoñete just nodded. “Muchas gracias,” he said.
Then we both added, “Adiós,” and left.
Before we finished our Internet conversation, Guillermo promised something unusual for the next time I go to Spain.
“The restaurant is closed,” he said, “but I just ordered something special for when we can open again. I was able to get two very rare bottles of old Peinado Coñac.”
Guillermo was reminding me of one more piece of information he gave me that day near Ávila: the little-known fact that one maker of brandy in Spain was given the legal right for one hundred years to call his brandy Coñac. It was the only brandy produced outside of the Cognac region in France that had such a right, and the permission was granted in recompense for the fact that the producer gave some vines to the Cognac region during the phylloxera epidemic in the nineteenth century that ruined so many grapes in France.
“I was able to get hold of two bottles,” he said. I knew that this was quite a coup because the last year that the production had the right to use the name was 1972.
“So there are epidemics and there are epidemics,” Guillermo said, raising his glass on my laptop screen. “The grapes were replanted after the phylloxera outbreak and great wine and great cognac were produced again. This epidemic we are living through will pass as well!”
And with that we raised our glasses and drained them.
That was the end of our conversation. We both said goodbye, though each of us used a different expression.
“Nos vemos,” I said. “See you!”
But Guillermo, in the serious way Spaniards sometimes have, used the Catalan expression intentionally: “Adéu!”
A few days later I got to thinking about the whole matter of reestablishing contacts. I started searching around on the Internet, and in the same way that I had initially found that there was a Paloma Larramendi Wilson still in Chicago, I was able, with a bit more searching, to find an e-mail address for her as well. Not knowing whether the address was valid or not, I sat down and composed a long e-mail in Spanish, reminding Paloma who I was. I said I hoped that she was well and safe in the midst of the pandemic, and I told her that I still remembered the day she recited her whole name before our seventh-grade class. I did not know if the e-mail would reach Paloma or whether she would even respond if it did. But it was worth a try.
To my surprise, I got a response within a matter of hours. Paloma remembered very well who I was. And she remembered that, yes, we were both in the same choir; she even remembered which part I sang in the December performance our junior year of Menotti’s little Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
But what she didn’t remember was ever having stood up in front of the class to recite her complete name. She must have done so, she said, because I was pretty much right about the long string of names. But she had absolutely no recollection of ever having recited her name and she could not imagine why she would have had occasion to do so.
She told me that she had children and that they were now in university in the Chicago area, living at home with her and her husband Mark. They were all safe and self-isolating as they were supposed to do.
The one sad note concerned her parents. They had returned to Spain after she graduated high school—to the northern city of Valladolid where they were from. My suspicion that her parents had had to leave Spain for political reasons turned out to be correct. Her father had been involved in the Republican cause, she said, and after Franco’s victory he was jailed, then released on the condition that he leave the country.
Her parents had returned to Spain after Franco’s death. But her father had spent the past year in very frail health and suffering from dementia, and as the virus swept through the country he was in the first wave that got sick. This was before the hospitals were completely overwhelmed, and the care he got was very good. But it was not enough to save him, and even though he was put on a ventilator he did not make it. Her mother was distraught, of course, but fortunately she had an extended family to help her through this difficult period.
I wrote back with my condolences and I asked Paloma if by chance she would like to Skype. Her response was a simple no. I then told her that it was because I wished to hear her to recite her long name for me one more time. In her e-mail back to me she said that if it was only a matter of audio, we could set up a telephone call.
We spoke two days later.
I did not recognize Paloma’s voice at all, and no doubt I would not recognize her if I saw her today on the Chicago streets. We chatted a bit, and then I asked her if she was ready to say her full name, and after she cleared her throat she said, “Sí.”
And then she said it—almost chanted it:
“Paloma María Eugenia Gabriela González de Fernández de Mutis de Larramendi de Wilson.”
In that moment I was transported back to the school desk where I sat when I was twelve years old. I recognized the rhythms, the round vowels and rasping consonants. I again had the impression of a kind of secret doorway into another place and another time—a passageway of sound, almost music, in which the past and the present dwelled together, time becoming space, and the air moved more slowly, almost solid.
The recitation came to an end, and there was just silence and a bit of static on the line.
And as there was nothing more to say, I said thank you.
“¡Adiós!” Paloma said, and I knew that this was a definitive goodbye. And with that we both hung up.
Note: Some names in this essay have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.