The Quarantine Blog XIX: October 5, 2020

I apologize for my silence. I had a violent attack of vertigo about 3 weeks ago accompanied by soaring blood pressure which I am now being medicated for. All is well.) A further thought about, and instance of, conformity has occurred to me leading into realms of memory. I went to Iran about ten years ago, invited by a friend, a university professor I had met on my first trip to Iran in 1974, when I went with my son to visit an American colleague on a Fulbright there. Since she had no room in the apartment she shared with her sister, my friend asked a friend to put me up. This made the visit twice as interesting. The friend, also a university professor, was Armenian, therefore Christian, rather than Islamic in faith.  The morning after I arrived when I dressed to go out I, of course, draped my head in a scarf. In 1974, under the Shah, I had not had to wear a scarf unless I went into a mosque. I wrapped it around my neck and tied it at the back of my neck thinking this would be good since the scarf would be less likely to slip.  My hostess when I came out of my room looked at me critically and said, “No one wears their scarf like that in Tehran.” My glance must have been puzzled so she continued, “Why would you want to look different from others?” “That,” I thought, “is a dictatorship lesson. Don’t be different. Don’t stand out. Blend in, be one of many, an important survival technique.” She also told me later the worst thing, she thought, for a child was to not be a member of the local culture. She gave me no examples of the kind of exclusion or prejudice she endured but both were implied in her remark. When I walk up Pasig de Gracia, Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue, passing the fashionable shops, I wonder if the phenomenon I see in their windows, the unrelenting lack of color, is a legacy from the dictatorship when people adopted the camouflage of dullness so they would pass unnoticed by the Guardia Civil or whoever else was watching. Rarely are clothes in these windows in any shade other than black, grey, beige, navy, a dulled down pale blue. Rarely does one see yellow, orange, turquoise, emerald and if there is a red it, like the pale blue, has been muddied until it is with out spark or sparkle. I drove through Spain on the way to Morocco in 1960, with my husband at the wheel, in the seventh month of my pregnancy, in a Morris Mini Minor we had bought in England. We had been told Spain was dangerous, that we might be arbitrarily arrested but I think those were scare tactics by English relatives. I knew about the Civil War because it had been fashionable in my college years to huddle in dilapidated tenement apartments in New York City lit by candles in Chianti bottles to listen to the songs of the Lincoln Brigade. I didn’t know much about the Civil War, however, not who the Cuatro Generales were, except that the bad guys won. I knew nothing at all about Catalonia except that there was a book by George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, a title I thought beautiful. I think I knew it was about Spain. I had not read it, although I had read 1984. I was quite typically American in this—I had a knowledge of events out of context, little awareness of history, except for, in my case, gobbets of US, English, the Tudors, and Renaissance Italian. I knew who the Medicis were. I was a bit exceptional in having that much history. My peers in the US would have probably known less and had different gobbets—the American Civil War, the Irish Famine, the Alamo, the Communist takeover of Russia. As soon as we crossed the border from France I noticed while in France farmers’ carts had wheels salvaged from junked cars, in Spain the carts had great wooden wheels. These were beautiful but signaled an economic chasm between the two countries. The next shock, once we were out of the Pyrenees, was the first pair of Guardia Civil posted on either side of the road. I was lacking historically but I knew those soldiers from a drawing, an etching by, I thought until an hour ago, Goya. But I can’t find those soldiers in my book of Goya’s etchings. I knew, however, those capes, beautiful yet sinister, and the paten leather hats. When we saw the first pair we thought there must be a base just off the road. But then we passed the second, the third, the fourth, every twenty miles, or was it thirty, and we were confronted by the fact that we were in a jail and these were the guards. When my husband saw a pair in the distance, he would slow down. We didn’t want to give an excuse for our arrest. The wooden cartwheels signaled poverty but I had lived in Monterrey, Mexico for a year and knew about poverty, I thought. However, I had never been anywhere where men with guns were a constant presence. The scenery, we were inland having come straight south from Carcassonne, was rugged and handsome. That afternoon we came into Barcelona. I will quote my 24 years old self. “Barcelona is a dismal looking town, very brown and drab.” We spent the night, although I don’t know where. The journal was written by a twenty-four year old who noticed but was not thorough or adept at chronology. I do remember that we ate in a rather grand restaurant mostly lit by candles and were stared at, not unpleasantly but with a warm intensity, as though our fellow diners were inhaling the odd perfume of our foreignness. I think, but am not sure, that the restaurant was on Pasig de Gracia. I remember that street with its great wrought iron arched lights as having the air of a being reaching, stretching for something that was not there. I also recall those lights did not light up the street. Barcelona at night was a dark town. My father was an architect and architecture was part of the air I breathed as a child. I recognized I was in an architecturally extraordinary town but still, by day, it had a dusty look as though it were a neglected object in an abandoned room, lifeless moribund.  As we had driven into town I had seen, across what looked to me like rubble, as though there had been a bombardment, I may not have been wrong, the extraordinary silhouette of the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral constructed, like a beach castle, with sand dribbles to create the spires. It took my breath away over there across the bombed out land. It had energy. It was a clenched fist of vigor. But the next morning when my husband and I thought of going to see it, we decided we wanted to move on south and not stop. This was the first of many times we made this decision. We saw nothing but what was directly in our path in Spain. Some friends in Barcelona when I tell them about this first visit say,”1960? It wasn’t so bad in 1960.” This means to me that life must have been appalling before 1960. But I have other friends who listen to me nodding their heads. After Barcelona we traveled south along the coast which was frequently beautiful and dramatic but never prosperous. After Valencia, there is nothing in my journal about that town, we turned inland. The roads were bad but we had expected that.  Many were unpaved, rutted and clouded with red dirt that clung to people’s clothes and faces. The farms looked uniformly poor. No farmer owned a car and only rarely a motorcycle, just carts pulled by lean horses or mules whose harnesses chimed with small bells. The women all wore black, as did women in Mexico, with scarves over their heads.  Many, many men and women carried heavy burdens of firewood on their bent backs.  The 24 year old wrote in her journal, “It is depressing not so much because of the poverty but because of a lack of spark in the people themselves. They seem so heavily laden both literally and figuratively that they no longer make any effort.”  Yet the countryside was often beautiful with olive trees, their leaves turning silver in a breeze. I still didn’t quite understand the problem wasn’t just poverty. Later on that road going inland I saw an incident that gave me an aperçu into the core of the problem. “An old woman bent beneath her load of faggots, her black scarf almost covering her face, was hooted at by a passing truck. She looked from beneath its folds with such an agonized look of fear in her eyes that it hurt to see.“ She was in terror. Something began to stir, a sense that I had seen her terror again and again, modestly obscured by self-control, by the gauze of good manners, or civility in the eyes we encountered.  I became aware that we had not had one conversation since crossing the border that was not rooted in a commercial exchange. No one had asked where we were going, why we were driving through Spain. Curiosity was as still and flattened as road kill. I began to prickle with an awareness that I was passing through a country where everyone was afraid. This knocked the wind out of me and as it did I became aware that all of us were having trouble breathing. In Spain oxygen was not universally available. Lesson one. I told this to a man I know in Barcelona. His one comment, “You learn fear from your parents.  It is an inheritance.” That night we stayed at an expensive, beautiful hotel in Alicante, on the edge of the Mediterranean where the sea lapped the terrace wall outside our room, hushing us to sleep that night.  How “expensive” was that hotel? I kept track of our daily budget; rarely did we spend more than 11 dollars a day for the two of us, only occasionally did we get up to 15 dollars. We had a grand total of about 3,000 dollars, after buying the Morris Mini Minor, and it had to last us until January when we would go home. The baby was due in February. The land before and around Valencia was green with cotton, pomegranates, lemons, dates and olives. There was an enormous water wheel on a river. Near Valencia we stopped for gas in a town full of soldiers and Guardia Civil. We stopped whenever there was a gas station since you did not know when you would find another. An officer came over to ask if we would take a Guardia to a town further south. I did the talking in my excruciatingly rusty Spanish. I thought he wanted to go to Granada. It was obvious that one did not say no to an officer, however polite and smiling. A Morris Mini Minor is a small car. With two adults in the front there wasn’t a lot of room in the back and beside that we had our smaller cases on the back seat, the ones with toiletries. The Guardia who climbed in was over six feet, handsome, pleasant and spoke the most exquisite Castilian I had ever heard. As we drove hairbrushes and toothpaste tubes cascaded about his knees. This was lesson two. The oppressor may be handsome, well spoken and charming.  We drove with him through the province of Almaria, a place that took me to a new level of understanding of poverty. We were surrounded by big barren hills, like sand dunes, no trees, no plants, no green. The soil was grey. I thought a strong wind would yank the earth like a cloak from the back of a Guardia. There were goats, which would, of course, strip the earth further, turkeys and lambs. People were coming back from market not in carts but on donkeys with panniers heavily laden both with provisions bought and rejected animal skins and as many people as would fit on a donkey back. Looking out the window the Guardia had asked, “¿Es los Estados Unidos mas rico?” We were both dumb founded, replying simply, “Si.” We tried to talk but my Spanish was incapable of anything but simple phrases, my vocabulary so tiny that when our personal Guardia Civil asked us to stop,  I didn’t comprehend. The word I knew for stop was, ”Alta.” He finally got us to understand. We dropped him in some village where, I presume, he found a ride back to the town he wanted.  I understand from someone I know here now that people were starving in Almaria at this time. We stayed overnight in a hotel in Granada but did not go to the Alhambra.  By this time we were both tensely aware that we just wanted out of this country. That we would have to drive back through it made us both wretched. We agreed that we should do this by the fastest route we could find. Driving to Algeciras we saw a wedding in a small town, the bride and groom walking the dusty, rutted main street with family and the whole town celebrating in their best. It was the happiest moment we saw in Spain.  We arrived in Algeciras on a Sunday when there was no ferry to Tangier so we stayed over night in a grim hotel, El Termino. The town smelled equally of dead fish and the sewerage carried by a canal past our hotel to be dumped into the Mediterranean. Our room was clean but the food was grisly. We went down to the dock to watch a boat come in from Ceuta. The next day we took the ferry to Tangier. Half way across I remembered I had left a sandwich in the pocket of the car door.  Oh well, it would be waiting for us on our return in a week. We had an exhilarating time in Tangier with our friends. I learned I have the evil eye because I have green eyes. When men spat they put their foot over their sputum. That was all right but women covered their baby’s faces when I passed. It made me sad since being pregnant I was interested in baby faces. People were poor in Tangier, I remember an old man lying down on his donkey clothed in a couple of old sacks, but they were alive–men talking vociferously over small glasses of desperately sweet mint tea in cafes open to the street. Women stopped to talk and everyone wanted to know where I planned to have the baby. There was bustle and movement, a joy in life, that we had not seen as we drove through Spain. The journey back was accomplished in two days. The one incident I remember, it is not in my diary, occurred in a town where I got out to cash travelers checks in a bank. I was now quite large and unmistakably pregnant. As I maneuvered my awkward bulk out of the car a man, all in black, passed and gave me such a look of repelled disgust that I realized for the first time that I was the only pregnant woman I had seen from one end of Spain to the other. When we crossed with relief into France we both swore never, never, never would we go back to Spain. But that Spain is dead and, largely, buried. I am lucky enough to live in the new Spain. But the old Spain gave me a lesson, one that helped to form me. I have taken graduate degrees from Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea, that peerless instructor in the field.

5 thoughts on “The Quarantine Blog XIX: October 5, 2020

  1. …the fate that may well await this nation if the current president is reelected and continues to rule like a dictator, a despot. Be safe and keep writing…your experiences put things in perspective! We send love from Vermont, still ablaze in autumn glory!!

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  2. I also traveled with a husband and a backpack at age 22 through Europe; however without a diary. Like you I was a limited American with limited ideas.
    One prediction of things to come was in Sicily at a camping ground of all Italians we were told Nixon was connected with the Mafia bosses there. Soon after Watergate.

    This launched a life of travel and many Phds .

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  3. Thanks Karen for a very interesting entry. Good to hear from you again.
    Garlic and other foods/natural remedies are good for lowering blood pressure.

    I must visit Iran. The fact that they are being persecuted by evil forces makes it more interesting as in “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. I see that they are under new USA sanctions regarding dollar transactions but they could not care less because they just continue doing that stuff through Russia and China.
    I like that.
    We are supposed to hate/fear Islams, but it is the Islams who are the victims – of the Anglo-American usury banking/MIC empire.

    Re: Spain 1960,… today Spain is for sure a dictatorship, but now it appears to be a dictatorship of Franco’s enemies.
    “The oppressor may be handsome, well spoken and charming” = Pedro Sanchez!
    “Spanish Constitution – which states that a state of emergency is authorized only in case of plague or foreign military invasion”? “We never heard of it!” says Sanchez to the thousands who have lost their businesses, jobs, homes, and, in many (thousands of?) cases, lives due to the lockdown and other dictatorial edicts.

    I enjoyed your account of driving over the border from France to Spain. I do that each year after spending the month of August in Paris.

    Police? Barceloneta is often crawling with police vehicles and I have the feeling that they are not there for my benefit. Perhaps to check if there is anyone not wearing a mask so they can stop the person, demand identification, and issue a fine? That happened to me on my bicycle in Paris(same dictatorship as is now oppressing Spain) in August. I told them I had left my ID at my hotel so they let me go.
    I was not staying in a hotel, but it worked.

    Gray and Black in Shop windows? You must be talking about Zara. For color and life you must go to Italy.Perhaps the women in black you saw in Spain in 1960 were widows?
    But life is good and things are getting better, I really believe that.

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    1. My husband who died in July, left Holland with his parents in 1941. He was 6 years old. They traveled through numerous European countries where they had contacts to help them find a way out. They finally left by way of Lisbon, where his godfather was an attache at the British Embassy. His most vivid memory was seeing buildings in Madrid riddled with bullet holes, piles of rubble and people in rags. Karen was struck by distress and poverty 20 years later. During that interval it seems not to have
      changed very much.
      On another note, one summer in the Vaucluse (France) where we had a house, a new rule was instigated which required that all vehicles must be furnished with certain accessories or one would be fined. The gendarmerie were relentless. They were checking at every traffic circle and all secondary
      roads between villages and small towns. There were more than 50 uniformed officers on a 20 mile stretch one Sunday. We were headed for a luncheon at a friend’s in Nyons. Countless cars were parked below the embankment next to the vineyards, while everyone sat in the hot sun waiting for papers to be drawn up and issued. The accessories that we had to carry in our trunk were for our own safety: a large flashlight, a bright yellow vest, a jack, a Red Cross kit with surgical tape, gauze and tourniquet, and an SOS sign to post. These were supplied by numerous outlets and were included with car sales and rentals. There were no exceptions.
      We did not feel that we were robbed of our freedom to travel. Just that we would be safer when we did.
      It made a lot of sense. Lives could be saved in the event that we had an accident while on the road or
      had to get help for some reason we could not foresee.
      Suppose our federal government had required us to wear a mask when they knew how the virus
      was spread? And if that idea is a threat to our freedom, why do we have to have a license
      to drive a car? Or have rules about driving?
      The answer is obvious. We aren’t just protecting ourselves but other people as well.
      We also cannot defecate in public, or appear nude in public, among other things, or we risk being arrested and fined.
      Do we want to live in a society with no rules at all?
      I do not.

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  4. Hi Karen – thank you for sharing your memories. Did you ever think, back then that Barcelona will becomes your home one day?! I’m glad it has changed for better.
    If the current president is re-elected I will have to move outta here.
    Love

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