My Spanish assistant Roberto was catnapping on a chair in front of the Avis desk at the Madrid airport. Born in Nashville but because of a love of Spain, Robert lives in Argentina. He prefers Third World chaos and inefficiency. (His blog, at wrighton.com.ar, explains.) While Robert celebrates things that are needlessly complicated and frustrating, I fight them. Traveling with him will probably be good for me.
It’s a big holiday, so the trains south to Cordoba were booked. We rented a car. Robert can’t drive a stick and automatics are still rare in Europe. Thankfully, Avis had a mighty little BMW — that was automatic — held for us. Robert drives…I type on my laptop. Efficiency. Ricky likes it.
Minutes later, we’re southbound on the freeway, immersed in the vastness of La Mancha. It’s a tough terrain. A windmill — weathered into a rough little useless nub — still caps its blustery hill. I swear, bugs here bounce off the windshield and keep on flying.
We pop into a rustic truck stop for lunch. As my teeth break into my ham sandwich, I finally arrive. España! My passport was stamped, but I didn’t realize that I hadn’t really arrived until I broke through the crisp crust, into the fluffy fresh baguette — and hit jamon.
In Spain, you gotta love the ham…from happy pigs…acorn fed. Cured ham hocks — toned legs with pointed toes, like dismembered farmyard ballerinas in vice grips — are found in every bar. That simple truck-stop sandwich spoke to me. “Welcome to España.”
Europe is changing fast. I once thought when I had TV shows covering the entire Continent I could say “mission accomplished.” But no. Spain still has its short men with tobacco voices and “curves of happiness” — round Buddha bellies. (Sure, some would say “reminders of lives cut short.” The men would say souvenirs of lives well lived.) But you no longer fear the thieves who smash your car window and grab your purse. People don’t throw trash on the bar floors as much as before. Restaurants are no longer hazy with smoke. And there’s orthodontia — young people with straight teeth. Affluence is here. It’s a cell phone and iPod culture.
Traveling shows you that history lives. It has a metabolism — driven by a society confronting (or ignoring) its problems. Solving old challenges…dealing with new ones. For instance, driving south to Cordoba, we pass road signs in Arabic, posted just two years ago. Some locals say “to make sure their Moroccan guests find their way home.”
Five hours after my Alitalia pilot said I could release my seat belt, we pull into Cordoba and settle in. Later, wandering the Art Deco streets, we’re drawn to commotion on a square.
It’s almost midnight. Short men with curva de la felicidad bellies jostle and bark as a dozen little school girls rattle a makeshift stage, working on their sultry. Even with iPods and straight teeth, Andalusia’s flamenco culture survives.
Burrowed deep into my bed, rather than count sheep I review the day: breakfast in Milan, the scare at the airport (long lines and too little time), being wowed by smooth and freshly painted asphalt ribbons lacing together Spain, and Cordoba’s every-night festival of life filling the streets. Then a noisy parade rumbles down the cobbled lane I thought promised a good night’s sleep.
Standing in my underwear and wrapped in the drapes, I peer secretively out my window. Below, a band of guitars and castanets with a choir of tobacco voices funnels down my narrow alley. Grandmothers — guardians of a persistent culture — make sure the children pick up their Andalusian traditions. Suddenly, one looks up and catches my eye. I feel like a Peeping Tom…good.