Homage to Caldas d'Estrach

A visit to contemporary, post-Franco Spain brings back memories of an earlier time, when a five-year-old girl learned things she would always remember about friendship, grace under pressure, and human dignity.

Like pure, impalpable olive oil, the sun poured down on the richly sculpted façade of the Plaza Mayor, the grand old square in Madrid.

I sat with my husband at a small table out of doors, watching the noon light sift through the white wine that the waiter was pouring for us. Amazingly, my glass stood filled beyond the brim, but the wine did not spill over.

“Lift it and drink,” the waiter grinned pleasantly. “A steady hand means that you are honest and will pay the bill!” I was enchanted by the old Catalan challenge. I remembered my mother and father being challenged the same way in the long ago. I lifted the glass and, sure enough, it did not spill. My hand was steady but, at that point, my thoughts were not . . .

We had returned to Spain in a mood of celebration. Franco was dead, and, we had been given to understand, Spain breathed easier than ever she had in our lifetime. So far so good. Little children did not surround our table, for example, pleading for sweets, money, or a chance to shine our shoes. The children passing by, on their way home from school to lunch, were well dressed and happy. But in spite of the peaceful scene, we both tensed at the sound of a disturbance.

It began with an ominous, low chanting in the distance, words of protest repeated over and over. They grew louder, accompanied by the impassioned tread of hundreds of feet on pavement, marching in unison. The Goyaesque procession now became visible, spilling into the square. With banners aloft, troops of medical students pounded past us, chanting their case against a decrease in government budgeting for public health. I expected to see police cars come squealing to the scene, but nothing of the sort happened. Nor did the Guardia Civil officers come to level bayoneted rifles at the demonstrators. Nor did scuffles break out between students and onlookers. With surprise and relief we leaned back in our chairs. Here was no threat, no terror. Their black eyes sparkling in their white faces, the protestors marched around the square and out the opposite way.

Other students appeared in groups of two and three, crossing the square on their way to classes. They looked wide-awake, eager, yet relaxed, as their fathers had never been. College in Spain used to constitute a terrible strain on all concerned. It showed in the pinched and frightened faces we had seen on previous visits. From the moment that his parents decided upon “higher learning” for a son, that boy would eat, sleep, and study with fear as a constant presence. If there was food for him, then he could taste fear in his food. If there was sleep for him, fear lay pressed like a pillow to his stomach. It showed in his eyes, and in time it became set as a sneer on his features. But none of that was true anymore.

There were girls as well as boys enrolled in college now. They spoke together freely, with no mothers or brothers hovering as chaperones. Separation of the sexes had been a terrible blight on Spanish youth, and that too was gone. The young people clustered here and there, listening to a guitar player or an impromptu speaker, or simply talking among themselves in an atmosphere of slightly self-conscious friendliness, savoring the sunlight for a few minutes before moving on. Here, as in Paris or Pomona, blue jeans and sweaters appeared to be the standard school-wear for both sexes. The fact that these young people were generally happy showed in their faces, their easy voices, their relaxed gestures, and their light steps. With this new generation, it seemed to us, Spain was coming into her own at last.

Not that the old Spain had vanished. After most of the students had gone along, old men came to parade the splendid square in slow motion. Shuffling stiffly and unsurely over the cobblestones, they conversed with ancient companions. Most of them were clutching newspapers and occasionally brandishing canes. These gentlemen wore dark gray suits with little ribbons in the lapels that attested to heroic pasts. They seemed like ghosts of the old bulls that fought in Spanish plazas on long-ago afternoons . . .

The sun and the wine were transporting me back, to Barcelona in October 1931.

At five years old, I had wandered out onto the terrace of a hotel suite which my parents had taken for the night. They sat behind me in the room, listening to the scratchy radio which was shaped like a miniature cathedral. Its raspy voice held them transfixed. They watched, with unspoken annoyance, my sisters and younger brother loudly roughhousing on the carpet. Out where I stood, meanwhile, everything seemed peaceful.

The night air was fresh and fragrant. I leaned over the railing. Why were the streets below quite empty? Only an hour before they had been thronged with noise and laughter, people hurrying about, shouting greetings, struggling with parcels, and generally making themselves very entertaining. Now, silence and emptiness. Two streets met beneath our terrace to form a boulevard. At their intersection a single streetlamp cast a cone of yellow light over an abandoned pushcart. Even rows of apples and oranges had been polished to jewel-like splendor. Bunches of grapes glowed like amethysts. Earlier an old man had been there selling his fruit. I looked around. No, he had gone, leaving the fruit unattended. The street was too quiet. It was unsettling. Then, in the eerie silence, three loud reports rang out. I spun to call my mother, but stopped, hearing running footsteps, fast, compelling. A man hurtled out of the darkness, his arms flailing the air, his legs disjointed with effort. He badly needed to get away, as anyone who had played tag could see. Instead, he hesitated. I gasped. He swerved across the boulevard to the fruit cart and deliberately overturned it. Wasn’t it his pursuers I heard shouting? He bolted back across the intersection and out of sight. I had only an instant to watch the red and gold fruit roll onto the gray pavement before about half a dozen men appeared. Hunched and menacing in their dark uniforms, they stopped in the lamplight. They were panting, and confused about directions. They argued noisily, gesticulating with guns. No one bothered with the fruit at their feet, although one man kicked at a bunch of grapes. Guessing correctly, they hurried after their prey.

My parents burst onto the terrace. Roughly they pulled me back into the brightly lit, engulfing complacency of the hotel room. They had been listening to a radio report about the mini-revolution of October 1931 while I had been watching a bit of it. Frightened, they forbade us to go back onto the terrace. They tried to explain the reason, but I could not understand. I did wonder why that man who had so little time to save his own life had spent so much of it ruining someone else’s.

Later that year we moved out to a little fishing village north of Barcelona, on the Costa Brava. In their gallant if maverick way, my parents were taking advantage of a favorable exchange rate to stretch a Depression-shaped income far enough to cover imaginatively a family of six. There were about two hundred and fifty people in the town, mostly fishermen and their families. In summer, the well-to-do came out from the city. They possessed beautiful villas along one end of the beach. A small, rectangular park, shadowed by ancient plane trees, separated the villas from our side, where the fishermen drew up their boats.

The village itself consisted of uneven stone buildings, with tile roofs and many terraces. One could look into a neighbor’s window without stretching. Talk and excitement, dramas of everyday life, went on around us all the time. Our house, which opened onto the beach, had a small garden filled with fragrant roses, carnations, geraniums, pine trees, figs, pomegranates, and even a banana-plant. Behind the town sat a tiny mountain on top of which perched, like a child’s party hat, a castle tower. We used to climb the mountain’s pine-covered, anisefragrant paths, searching for mushrooms.

The most famous feature of the area was the warm spring from which it got its name: Caldas d’Estrach. Roman conquerors had relaxed in its waters, which still bubbled into the sea. Whether for this or for some other reason, fish came in plenty. La Mar de Plata, “the Sea of Silver,” locals called it. Not, Juan the fisherman soberly informed us, because of the sea’s color at sunrise, but because of the silver fish, and the silver coins that they brought.

The beach was my life. Early mornings I would comb it for shells, and for bits of green glass rubbed smooth by sand and salt. I still have a knife I found there, an iron dirk lost over the side of some ancient galleon. Sometimes the sea barely moved, except to sparkle slowly in soft stillness, blue and silver, with only the tiniest curl lapping the shore. After I had been swimming and sunbathing, the coarse white sand would dry and fall, but little flakes of golden mica would shine atop my tan as I ran in from the beach to lunch under our fig tree. For most of the year on our beach there were only my family and the fishermen.

Everyone seemed to work, and work was noble. It had the seriousness of a child’s play. “I am a fisherman,” Juan would say, drawing a straight line in the air, expanding to his Mediterranean five feet two. “Es esto!” The dignity of his trade reached back to the Apostles and infused him with grandeur at those moments. How I copied that straightness, although my mother, who looked and acted like Marlene Dietrich, worked hard to give me the more fashionable debutante slouch.

Spaniards stood straight, their eyes shining, their heads raised as if always on the alert for some news that might arrive from the sky, suddenly.

I used to practice looking up the same way. But, being an American child, I knew what I was looking for. I had seen a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade before I left New York for Spain, and at the end of that magnificent procession, all the enormous inflated monsters had been let loose to fly off into the unknown. They had drifted off, I assumed, to Spain. And so I kept alert for them, mimicking Spanish ways: head turning easily, quickly, to catch what had been glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

Our village depended for its existence not only on the harvest of the sea but also on the grape harvest. On September days, horse-drawn carts used to pass our house on the way to the winepress. Children cavorted behind the carts, laughing and tumbling in the dusty street. Some even darted in to sip at rivulets of grape juice oozing from the jostled loads. I never dared do that myself. I remember a middle-aged woman lifting a succulent bunch of grapes from one of the carts and weighing it suggestively in her palm. Her gesture brought gusts of hilarity. An arthritic old man, interrupting his solitary stroll down the street, stopped to shake his cane in mock dismay at such vulgar behavior.

I used to follow the magic of all this right to the winepress. There we crowded into a dark room. A rectangular stone vat, about eight feet long and five feet high, stood in the middle of a dirt floor. By the light of one small candle I saw three men inside the vat. Their coats were off, their trousers rolled above the knees. They hung onto knotted ropes which were looped over the rafters, and, barefoot, they rhythmically stomped the slippery grapes. Sweating, faces distorted by candlelight, they shouted back and forth as friends came to watch. Fumes began to rise, and their footing became less sure, their laughter louder. A new basket of grapes was tipped into the vat. Twirling around and around, one man lost his grip. With a splash he fell into the richly reeking mash. Friends were convulsed as he tried in vain to right himself. Suddenly the door opened, blinding us with sunshine. It closed, and the room seemed pitch black. Laughter stopped instantly. People rushed to the fallen one. “De prisa. He can drown!” the owner shouted. Shaken and very wet, he was helped out into the sunshine to dry. The door closed. Laughter soon began to bubble up again as a new man untied his alpargatas, rolled his trousers, grabbed a rope, then, twirling twice, got his footing and began to stomp.

Perhaps as I grew older I noticed more, or perhaps the conditions that were pulling Spain toward disaster just became more apparent, even to a child. I remember that Fridays were almost unbearable. Friday was called “Maria’s Day,” when by law beggars were allowed to leave their street corners and seek alms at one’s door. “Ave Maria Purissima,” they would chant tonelessly, “sin pecado nuestra vida.” Where did they all come from? It was a parade, lasting uninterrupted all day, black and hopeless. They prayed to the Virgin, a Catalan contemptuously explained to me, because Christ was too busy on his cross to be of any help.

The spring of 1936 brought a change in our little village. People were worried, they smiled less. The rich father of one of our summer friends went around in an open shirt, no jacket. It was unheard of and he did it awkwardly, ashamed. Summer festivals were canceled. Without explanation our parents told us to stay in sight of the house at all times. One day our car, a magnificent if erratic open Lancia, was commandeered. A bunch of drunken teenagers, locals, firing guns in the air, drove it away. The Lancia immediately got into the mood and bravely backfired all the way down the dirt road, dust and smoke issuing from every side. But it was like losing a beloved pony to watch it disappear into the park.

As the days passed, things became more desperate. Banks closed; we could get no money. Orders went out that no one was to leave town. One night a friend came crying to report that his father, the village schoolteacher, had been shot. He was only the first.

One sunny morning our friend Maria exploded into our kitchen. “Vina! Vina! Señores! Come and see a magnificent sight! The church is burning! We have set it on fire!” She was flushed with excitement, out of breath from running. We followed her to the little church, sacred to the Virgin Mary. Flames, roaring like a waterfall in reverse, already filled the inside. Two men with guns stood at the entrance to prevent anyone from entering. Terror filled the onlookers. No one moved or spoke. Surely God would intervene. No! With a resounding crack the roof split and crashed to the ground, belching out sparks and smoke. A murmur of disbelief, of pain, swept the crowd. Our friend Pilar rushed up the steps to the door, but she was clubbed away by the gunmen. The statue of the Madonna, visible to all in the doorway, shuddered and then, trailing a veil of fire, fell slowly forward. Some people dropped to their knees, praying out loud that Mother Mary overlook the blasphemy. Others stood straight. “It is not against you, Mary,” a man shouted proudly as he crossed himself.

In five more minutes, the fire gutted the building. Our friend Maria was exhilarated. We walked her home. Her statue of the Madonna was still by her bed. An oil lamp burned faithfully before it.

“Leftists,” a group which ranged from Republicans to Catalan anarchists, were now in control of our village. It was uncertain who was in control of the country. Our friends told us not to worry about money. Our credit was good. But listening to each scrap of news on the raspy radio, my parents knew that things were not going to be that easy.

It was not long before a little-known general named Franco returned from North Africa with his troops.

The guerra civil had begun in earnest.

“You are leaving today,” our little friend Mercedes told us excitedly. We did not know what she was talking about. Our father soon confirmed it. “Go down to the beach and help Juan with a bonfire.” Bewildered, we did not move. It was midday, too early for a fire on the beach.

“Run! Hurry! We have only half an hour!” He turned to my mother, who was listening anxiously: “We can take passports, toothbrushes, and sweaters. Nothing else!”

We ran out our gate, across the little dirt road, and onto the beach. A small crowd had already gathered. Juan was making a bonfire bigger than any we had made before. All our friends seemed to be helping. More villagers arrived all the time. Old friends, now on opposite sides of a war, embraced or surreptitiously patted a shoulder, kissed a hand. Our Lancia, filled with men in uniform, stopped in front of our gate. Bristling with rifles, it looked like a grotesque hedgehog. A man jumped out. “Caramba!” he said disgustedly. “We’re at war.” Bustling about like the officious director of a silly operetta, he gathered our leftist friends on the left of our gate, and our rightist friends on the right. Then he looked puzzled. What else? Uncertainly, but with the habit of command, a rightist aristocrat handed him a white handkerchief. Why not? The gunman tied it around his rifle butt, signaling a truce. My parents arrived. The fire was lit.

Then—majestic on the calm blue water—a destroyer hove into view. It had come to rescue us. It was part of the British Navy and it was combing the Spanish shores, searching for stranded nationals. My father had gotten word to the captain, but would he see us now? The fire was poked to make more smoke. Shawls were waved, shouts went up. The gunmen got out of the car and pointed their rifles, without favor, at the two little crowds. The destroyer stopped, well offshore. A tender was put over its side. Each step was described and redescribed by the now whispering villagers. Tension mounted. Children waded into the water, but were anxiously called back by their mothers. There were last embraces. Tears. Fishermen helped draw the little rescue boat up their shore. Hesitantly, gunmen moved into the crowd and shooed everyone away from the water. Our friends slowly pulled back. We were left alone. They stood, wishing to say more and do more, but not daring to come closer.

“Caramba!” shouted Maria. Then, saying something more vulgar to the gunmen, she ran down to hug us goodbye. “You could be shot!” my mother said. Seeing her, Juan walked briskly to her side and embraced us too. No one else moved. “Hurry!” nervous sailors urged. We climbed aboard the tender, which pushed off instantly. Before we reached the safety of the destroyer, our friends had vanished from the beach.

Years of violence, decades of oppression, had just begun.

Twenty-two years later, in 1958, I returned with my own young family to live in Caldas d’Estrach. I wanted my children to grow up as I had done, feeling that the whole world was their garden— and that Spain was a very special home. Now that Franco had tentatively begun to admit foreigners again, the time had come.

We found Spain subdued, with little laughter to be heard. Poverty and anxiety appeared omnipresent. Still, we were glad that we had come. The village had not changed as yet, except that the house where I had lived before was gone—washed out to sea in a storm.

Juan the fisherman was still there, however, and so was Maria. Mercedes, my old beach playmate, was now a woman. On the first Sunday after our return, we all gathered round a marble-topped table in a hidden patio, eating little sardines which Juan had caught and Maria had cooked, washed down with the local red wine. It was a private moment; we could speak freely. I asked Juan about Franco.

Surprisingly, the old anarchist replied: “We need the man. Sí! Franco is the cork in the bottle. Without him, we would have to fight again. Therefore, until my generation dies, we must put up with El Caudillo. Don’t you understand? During the civil war, people did unforgivable things to each other. Soy hombre! Therefore, I myself would have to avenge certain things which I myself witnessed. They were not foreigners, but drunken louts from this very village who came into our homes and drafted us. Those who refused to ‘volunteer’ they shot dead, right there in front of their mothers. Dios mio!

“I felt like living,” Juan continued after a moment or two, “so when they came for me I went to war. But,

I did not kill anyone. If you don’t choose to kill, you aim over their heads. No one can tell the difference.” He held up his right hand for emphasis. Three fingers were missing.

“Was your hand maimed in the war?” my husband asked him.

Sí!” Juan exclaimed. “A hand grenade, thrown from the other side, fell at my feet. Caramba! With my friends all around, I thought I’d pick it up and hurl it back where it came from. But, we were all brothers. Es esto! I held the grenade as far away from myself as I could, and it exploded. Fortunately it was defective. We had plenty of defective weapons on both sides, so I escaped with my life.”

“Life under Franco——” I began.

“Is not so bad if you stay still,” Juan finished sadly. “They don’t bother us much. Occasionally we get a card saying: ‘Please come to the Plaza de Cataluña and wave for Franco.’ Es stupido, but no one refuses to go. We just don’t smile more than we have to.”

There was a silence. From beyond the door came the sound of boots on cobblestones. A pair of Guardia Civil were passing by, patrolling the village from end to end, as they did incessantly. They came from other parts of Spain, sinister strangers. No one ever spoke to them. They strode the streets, and even the little beach, interminably, backed by thousands of their kind, keeping order—the cork in the bottle.

Order and anxiety, poverty and bitterness; these were constants in Franco’s Spain. Yet life was carried on with style, especially among the poorer people, all the same. For example, it was astonishing to me to witness the amount of work that young women would put into preparing for Sunday. They had to look their best, they explained, for Sunday Mass, for dancing in the park, and for the paseo, or social stroll, which climaxed the day’s festivities. Hence, every spare moment had to be spent in preparation.

There was the village at street level, pursuing its ordinary course of a Saturday afternoon, and just above it was another, second-story village filled with feminine bustle. Friends waved from their ironing boards, their sewing tables. They talked loudly out of their upstairs windows across narrow streets. There were long conversations about laces and ribbons, starches and heights of hems from the ground. To iron one cotton dress with its pleats and frills might take all of Saturday afternoon. Then, the next day, what swagger and sway as the magnificent effort came to life on a young girl! If she was unmarried, her uncut hair, braided into one thick black plait, was brought around so as to fall gloriously down her front, usually to her waist. One never cut the hair of a virgin. Until she was thirteen or fourteen she would go and pasear with her mother. Then she would be “spoken for”—that is, pledged to a man in marriage. She might not marry him for several years, but in the meantime she would walk with him on Sundays.

Franco had forbidden the people of certain provinces to teach their own ancient languages, and even to dance their own traditional dances. However, he found these injunctions impossible to enforce in some places, particularly the Basque region and Catalonia. In our village, for example, every Sunday after Mass, most of the town converged in the little park by the sea to dance the sardana. This circle dance dates from long before the establishment of Spain itself. It begins sedately enough, with slow music, played on fifes, triangles, drums, and instruments which resemble outsize clarinets, and everyone holds hands around the ring. Toward the end, as the music keeps on quickening, they make spectacular leaps and bounds.

The sardana would appear to derive from some pagan fishing ritual. Its name refers to the horse mackerel, sarda, and carries an echo of our word “sardines.” It seems to repeat the harvesting of the sea, with fish encircled in a closing net and leaping to escape. In our village the dance would start with the formation of a single great circle. Soon, new circles would form inside of each other, to the number of six or seven. And, besides these, further groups of circles would be forming throughout the park. Our family joined in; everyone did, down to children of three and four who were always gathered in a center circle.

But not a dancer would smile. Something serious, even a little dangerous, was happening in the park. The people were protesting the net of oppression which encircled them. They danced their protest, and meant it.

The Guardia Civil never came down to the park on Sunday mornings.

Festivals of the church and of the turning year were still celebrated, although with more solemnity than joy. We took part as often as we could. The festival of San Juan at midsummer was my favorite. On that day each household undertook to make a carpet of flowers, covering the section of street before its house. Baskets of carnations and roses were gathered. Happy hours were spent with children on the mountain slopes, gathering, with difficulty, yellow flowers from the prickly broom.

When the morning of the procession dawned, the sun sent its rays across the silver water and right up the street on which we would make our carpet. The villagers kept to tradition: they used heraldic patterns from church sources. We designed a fishing boat with the sun above it. Homage to Caldas d’Estrach. People were surprised and delighted. My tiny children blocked in the yellow sun with the petals they had helped collect. We watched the procession from our upstairs window. First the priest, his silver censer fragrantly smoking; next, six youths carrying the Madonna; then, two blank-eyed Guardia Civil; finally, Juan with the other village elders. I was by now enough of a Catalan anarchist to be sorry to see priest and Guardia Civil be first to walk over our flowery fishing boat, although they stepped gingerly and did not destroy too much.

“It’s for you, Juan,” I called down into the silence as he started to cross it. “It’s your boat!” He looked up. Catching my glance, he understood. He pulled himself up straight and laughed deeply, as he used to do when I was little. Then, lowering his head, he walked solemnly on.

Those of us who have loved Spain have felt as if it belonged to us in some special way, or we to it. I think it was the sense of grandeur which invested daily life that gave us something special to belong to. This is missing in the new touristocracy that Spain is becoming.

We were able to help Maria and Mercedes to come to America. Mercedes is married with a family, and has a responsible job in New York. “We not talk about Spain, dear,” Mercedes said when I called her the other day. “You know I love America. Next time I travel, I go see your sister in California.”

There is really nothing left, in fact, for her to go home to at Caldas d’Estrach. The little castle of my childhood is still perched on its tiny mountain, true enough, but it is a fashionable restaurant now, with a paved road up to our secret haunts. High-rises and tour hotels, like blind giants trampling the countryside, have all but obliterated our old village. Unbelievable traffic jams pollute the Mediterranean air, and motorboats lace the clear waters of the Mar de Plata with oil slick. No longer can neighbors converse from upstairs windows, or spread carpets of flower petals at their front doors. Most old-timers, like Maria, have moved away. Those who have stayed, the sons and daughters of the grape pressers and fishermen, are bellhops, waitresses, and so on. They make more money in a summer than their fathers ever saw. They are not their own persons, however.

And what of Juan? He said that his generation would have to die in order to render Franco unnecessary. In fact, Juan outlived El Caudillo, but not by much. The noble fisherman who stood so straight is gone.