Ch. 36 – On to Madrid
I fell off on my journal writing after we got to Madrid. Here is the only excerpt I have:
Got into Madrid at 9:30 AM. It took eleven hours to make the trip – and we had had to pay a supplemental price because this was considered a train rapide! I wonder how much longer a non-rapide train would have taken?!! We hailed a taxi to take us to the Alcazar Regis, another hotel recommended in our Let’s Go guide. It was just as they described it: high ceilings, chandeliers for lighting, and stained glass doors closing off the rooms. There was a central sitting room in the middle of all of the guest rooms, and separate bathroom facilities. Our room looked out over the Gran Via – one of the main streets of Madrid. The view was spectacular, but there was also a lot of street noise.
As soon as we arrived and unpacked, I took a nap – I was so wiped out. Of course, Sandy stayed in the room – she was not comfortable venturing out on her own. I had to be really assertive about wanting quiet time, as she had decided to send a postcard to Tim, her crush in Angers. She kept reading it over and over to me, asking me if it was “too much.” I would have just liked to say, “Sandy, he’s gay!” in order to get some peace, but I was trying to be nice.
We ventured out, of course, at noon – in search of food. We settled on an establishment called the restaurant Valencia, where I had more paella, and Sandy tried again in vain to order gazpacho – the traditional cold tomato soup of Spain. She was finally told that gazpacho was never served in February – it was more of a springtime and summertime dish. That was disappointing, but she too ordered paella.
At the restaurant, we ran into another fellow American. His name was Jeff, and he was an electrical engineering major from North Dakota. He was taking some time off from his studies to refine his languages. We had a nice conversation – it was obvious that he was happy to see fellow countrymen (women). As for us, I am sure that Sandy was getting as tired of my company as I was of hers. We welcomed a third person to break the monotony.
We arranged to meet at a little bar off of the Plaza Mejor. It was called a meson – what we would call a tapas bar. The tradition of tapas was said to begin when bars were competing for customers. In addition to drinks, they began offering little appetizers, which were served on plates. These plates were balanced on top of the drinks glasses – as a former waitress, I could see that this was a space and time saver. It also served to keep the flied out of the drinks. The word tapas came from the Spanish verb tapar, which means to cover.
The bar where we met was very rustic – it had low wooden tables surrounded by stools. Thre was an organ player who played requests. Jeff, who was experienced in these places – apparently this was the only way to get a meal at an “American” hour (The Spanish typically do not eat dinner until 9 or 10 at night!). It was also cheap – one could order a couple of small servings of tapas with a drink and make a meal out of it. We ordered sangria, and a tortilla espanol – which was nothing like a Mexican tortilla. It was actually a sort of potato omelette.
After our tapas, we moved on at the proper Spanish dinner hour to a restaurant advertised as a cerveceria – a beer joint that also served seafood dishes. We had plates of shrimp, clams pickled in brine, and potato chips. I declined the beer – I had never liked it – but was able to order wine instead. God forbid I should drink a soft drink or plain water! Since Jeff had paid for our tapas, Sandy and I insisted that we pay for the dinner. We arranged to meet again on the following Friday night, and he said that his sister might join us. Unfortunately, our wires got crossed, and we never made the connection. It was pleasant to spend time with him that night, however. That was one of the perks of travel – often, when you met another American, he or she instantly became a friend!
Ch. 37 – February and Valentines!
To the grandparents:
11 Feb 85
(Postcard from Toledo, Spain): Hola! Spain has been wonderful. I’ve seen Madrid, Barcelona, and Toledo. The weather has been wonderfully warm. I got to see two flamenco shows and they were really impressive. The food was okay – I found a Mexican restaurant in Madrid and pigged out!
P.S.- I wrote you a letter before I left, but I couldn’t mail it in France. You’ll get it soon!
(Card with picture of a 100 peseta note on it):
So sorry this is late but I searched and searched for a Spanish birthday card, and they were all tacky. By now, you will have gotten my postcard and letter. I will send another detailed one about my trip to Spain – it was great! I even spoke Spanish! Now, my French is all messed up. I say “aqui” instead of “ici” and “gracias” instead of “merci”!
I just started a new semester. I have moved up two levels – that is unbelievable! I like my new teacher much better than the one I had last semester. She is a small woman with dark hair cut in a page boy. She actually seems to have a sense of humor, too! My schedule is much more agreeable this time around – no more 8:30 AM classes!
Valentines from Pablo:
(Valentine #1 – a picture of two pigs, with a bubble above one of them with a heart in it): Valentine… (open card) …this little piggy loves you.
Following an American tradition of Valentine. I hope you have a wonderful day. Here, so far, so good. I will be sending you a response to your beautiful letters, okay?
(Valentine #2 – a drawing of a man covered with hearts): Everytime you look at me like that…. (open card, hearts have fallen off, and he is hiding his “naughty bits…”) … I come unglued. Please be my Valentine!
(note) 2 – I saw this card and I thought about you. Be good. I miss you. Pablo
(Valentine #3 – a computer print our on green and white striped paper):
(Letter accompanying the print out – also on computer paper):
Hola amor. Como estas? Here I am writing you in this most unusual way, trying to impress you with this unique typewriting. I’m doing fine. School is real hard this semester. As you can read, I am taking a computer course. It’s not hard, thanks to my computer background (none). And, there is a math course that is driving me crazy. It is my last calculus and I think that I will be dropping it and taking it alone during the summer semester. My English course is fine – my professor is a crazy and different teacher that I have never had. We are learning not literature – on the contrary we are learning about philosophy. We have been talking mostly about the MEANING OF LIFE. According to him, we don’t have a purpose in life (lack of). Then there is my business class – it is going fine.
Now, let’s review the last two weeks in CAJUN LAND: A friend of mine, it was his birthday, so we went to have brunch at Cafe Vermillion. I am not sure if you met him? His name is Marty. We had a good time – our conversation was always on the subject of FEMALES. Thinking about the perfect girl in your life; that one day I might be able to find her (or, maybe I have found her?). I hope I get a response on that one!
My roommates are doing fine. I’m getting along just fine – it’s an excellent sign of responsibility and maturity. Chico is always in charge of cooking, Victor and I are in charge of doing the dishes and the rest of the kitchen. We all have duties with the rest of the house.
WORK: El Torito is getting better and I am satisfied with it. We have a new girl working in the bar. However, no one will ever take your place! Ricardo is still in love with the hostess, but he is losing the fight. Chico is back with the El Torito family.
Marcello’s is the wine bar and Italian restaurant where I also work. The experience of the job is great. You are going to think I am crazy for what I’m about to tell you: I JUST BOUGHT (past tense of BUY) a $125 bottle of wine. It is a 1961 vintage – a good year for that particular wine. The best part is that this wine can age for 20 more years! You know that, in the year 2000, I, Pablo, will be drinking a 1961 bottle of Barolo the same age that I am! How many people do you think will be doing what I will be doing? Celebrating the new century with something unique – so, it’s an excellent investment!
Claudine, mi amore, how is school coming along? I did enjoy your last letter. You are a wonderful person, and I’m so pleased with life to meet a person like you. Well, Claudine, I’m late for class, but I want to tell all your friends that I had the pleasure of meeting them by your letter. By the time your receive this, you will probably be back from Espana and I hope you had a beautiful time. And, something else: Happy Valentine’s Day!
I miss you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!much.
Ch. 38 – La Fleche – and Cupid’s Arrow Strikes!
Absence makes the heart grow fonder – Anonymous
Our group made our journey to La Fleche – this time, we took the train there, loaded down with the supplies to make the promised meal for our host families. The Association had rented out a reception hall, and we set to work to prepare red beans and rice, which was the easiest thing we could think of doing to serve a lot of people with supplies that would be easily obtainable in France. Trisha took charge, being the official Cajun among us, and we did her bidding. We also had a nice time with our families – it was more relaxed. Some of my compatriots had actually made a connection and had been back to visit more than once since our last group visit.
My family was very nice, but I always got the impression that they favored Keesha over me. I found out later that this had some grounds in truth. It seems that the wife of our veterinarian host was part black, so she was happy to host a person with whom she identified. Black people were not plentiful in our area of France. There were more of them in Paris, where they had immigrated from French-speaking Africa. Interestingly enough, I had tuned in to an underlying prejudice against people of color while at dinner with the affluent dentist from Angers. I believe that he or his wife made a suspicious remark about not trusting Spaniards, because their blood was tainted by African blood. I remember that reference to that day – to a person from the United States, who had been taught to accept all races, this was a shocking thing to hear.
Now, I was not defending Americans as a whole – I definitely had prejudices of my own, and those handed down from both sides of my family. My father was not stranger to the “N” word, and my mother’s parents held a pretty low opinion of Mexicans, being from West Texas. I learned that prejudice lives everywhere. Amusingly enough, it lived in a different form in La Fleche. Our hosts, and everyone in the Association were delighted to have two African-American students as a part of our group (I was more familiar with Keesha, but there was another guy in our group that was black, as well). They were so delighted that they would have exposure to a culture that they were unfamiliar with.
They, of course, did know something of the African-American experience in America – slavery, equal rights, music, dance. They were completely unaware that, even this knowledge was, in itself a preconcieved notion. Being twenty years old and under, we had missed a lot of the influenced that made that experience great. So, when our hosts prevailed upon Keesha to favor them with a Negro spiritual, we didn’t know what to do. There were many people in our group who were gifted with superior voices. Keesha – contrary to that stereotype about black people and singing – was not.
One thing Keesha was enthusiastic about was having a lot of attention attracted to her, so she set about practicing her rendition of “Amazing Grace.” to perform that night. A capella, it wasn’t too noticeable that she was off key – she, of course, embellished the song with the florishes of gospel music, rendering it even more unrecognizable. Still, even Chuck had to admire her chutzpah! It seemed that the people of La Fleche were so enthralled with our “musical troupe” that they encouraged all of us to sing the songs of our “homeland” – never mind that there were few native Louisianians in our group. The finale of the trip, as I recall, was our group singing “Jambalaya” as our train pulled away, and waving to our host families. You had to hand it to us, we did our best P.R. on that trip!
When I returned to Angers, there was a letter awaiting me. It seemed that a dark horse had appeared: it was a letter from Rusty, a disc jockey and fellow student that I dated before leaving for France. Apparently, he had not forgotten me:
Comment vas-tu dans cette jolie pays? Well, that’s about the extent of what I learned in Madame Jones’ class! I don’t think that I’ll ever forget that lady or that class…or you, for that matter.
So, anyway, how’s everything? I spoke with your mother a few days ago. She tells me you’re doing fine…(but I always knew you were fine! )… I hear you speak French as if you were a native. I don’t know if I’ll be able to converse with you any more, if you’re that good.
Well, is France everything that you expected? I’ve never been to Angers. How is it? Have you been to Paris? How are your classes going? Am I going to fast for you? I think that’s about all the questions I wanted to ask you. Oh, yeah, when are you coming home?
It would really be nice to see you again. I’ve been thinking about you quite a bit since you left. I thoroughly enjoyed the times that we spent together. Something seemed to click when we were together; I think so, anyway. Although I did discern at the time how special you were, I really acted like an idiot! Many things were happening at that time and they were happening a little faster than I could keep up with. Does that make any sense?
What I’m trying to say is that, due to some conditional factors, I was acting wierd. If I did or said anything to you to make your upset, I am really sorry! Actually, what this all is leading up to is that last time we were together, before you left, I think we went to a movie. That whole evening, I couldn’t help thinking that there was something wrong. Maybe I have a wild imagination, but it seemed that things were not the same at all. To a large extent, I probably provoked it. Still, I really enjoyed being with you, as always. Well, I dont’ want to dwell on this. I just wanted you to know how I felt, that’s all, and how great of a feeling it was just being with you – almost euphoric! (I hope I’m not getting too carried away…)
But, to conclude this, if there is anything on your mind, feel free to tell me, okay? Bon! I’m still in exciting New Siberia – I mean, New Iberia. Things are going well. I auditioned for a movie that will be filmed in and around Lafayette. It is called Acadian Waltz and is being produced by Robert Duval. I should hear something from the director sometime in late March. It would be nice if I got a part, but you never know about those things.
Well, I really got to go now. Have fun and take care. I hope to hear from you. I also hope that I didn’t confuse you with this letter, but it was just something that I had to tell you. So, bye for now.
P.S. – I’m really sorry that I didn’t write to you sooner – I have no excuse.
Holy Jesus, what was that all about? I didn’t remember a thing about that last date being weird. All I could think about was that we had been pretty hot and heavy, and I may have decided to control my hormones and chill out a bit – that’s it! I don’t remember what I wrote back to him – or if I wrote back to him. I do remember that I liked being with him…
Ch. 39 – To Recap…
4 mars 1985
No, this is not a form letter. I have received so many letters that I need to answer, I decided to get it all over with in one fell swoop. I don’t think that I’m being lazy- I like to call it innovative! I wanted to write sooner, but I have been so busy with schoolwork (I heard those disbelieving snickers!). Really, I have! Actually, I haven’t much more work than I did last semester, and, in all truth, I have fewer hours. The big difference is that I’m doing my homework. You see, I have this demon that is driving me, spurring me on, watching my every movement for signs of weakness (such as my skipping class or not doing my homework). This demon is Alan, one of my beloved fellow Louisianans.
You see, Alan has it in his head to mould me into his image of a good student – you might call him a sort of academic Pygmalion. He just doesn’t understand that studying is not in my nature. So now I must resort to doing things behind his back and telling the most outrageous lies to cover up my lapses. Wow! It’s just like being at home under the watchful eyes of my parents!
I know that many of you haven’t heard from me since before Christmas, but I’m going to start this letter with my trip to Spain. The first week of February, during our between-semesters break; Sandy (another Louisianan) and I took a train to Barcelona. We stayed over-night on the way in this questionable hotel in Toulouse, and we got into Barcelona the next afternoon. We found a hotel immediately, and set off toward the Ramblas, Which is a big boulevard with lots of vendors and street entertainers set up on the grassy median between the thoroughfares. We were really hungry, but it was hard to find a restaurant open on a Sunday. Still, I was determined that our first meal in Spain would not be McDonald’s. Finally we found a self-proclaimed “restaurante tipico”. Now I don’t usually trust advertising that blatant, but it was pretty good. I had a bowl full of baby octopi cooked in butter – that seemed pretty tipico to me! Unfortunately, Sandy was to be thwarted in her search for gazpacho, that Spanish soup made with fresh tomatoes: it is only served in the summertime.
The second day, we set about doing some heavy sightseeing. We were staying in the old part of town, which is right by the port. The weather was beautiful, and I had said the day before that I couldn’t wait to get out and walk. Boy, did we ever walk! We saw the Gothic cathedral, the arch of triumph, and the bizarre Templo de la Sagrada Familia. The Templo was, never finished because the architect, Guell, died. It looks kind of like those dribble castles we used to do at the beach. After we saw that we set off in what we thought was the direction of-Montjuic (a cliff top natural park with amusements and attractions) and promptly got lost. After wandering around and becoming acquainted with the seedier side of Barcelona, we stopped and got something to eat. When we realized how far we had gone, we were overcome with exhaustion and forced to take a taxi back to our hotel.
. That night we went to see a tablao flamenco. Now, this is what I came to Spain to see! The costumes weren’t too elaborate, but I loved the dancers and the guitar players. I even got to speak to one of the guitarists, but all I could say to him was “muy bueno”. (Give me a break – I came here to study French. Spanish will have to come later…)
On our last day in Barcelona, we did even more walking. This time, we took the teleferico to Montjuic and got a good aerial view of the port and the city. Montjuic is an enormous park on a hill overlooking the sea. There’s an amusement park, riding paths, a palace (now a museum and a little village called the Poble Espanyol (Catalan for Pueblo Espanol). The Poble was built for some world exposition and has examples of all of the different architectural styles in Spain. These days, it’s full of cute little shops, and we spent the afternoon wandering around and buying things.
From there we went to another park, the Parque GueIl, which was designed by the same architect who did the Templo de la Sagrada Familia. It was the most wonderful park I have ever seen. It looked like a pine forest fairyland. The buildings were of sienna clay that was the same color as the soil, but the roofs and trim were intricate mosaics made of multi-colored pieces of tile. On a pavilion overlooking the playground, there was an extensive serpentine park bench, which followed the edges of the retaining wall, leaving the center area free for the children to play. This bench was entirely of tile mosaics, and was planned so that people could sit in the little curves and talk face to face. It was fabulous.
That night we took a train to Barcelona. Our idea was to sleep on the train and arrive in Madrid in the morning. This is because it takes 11 hours for a Spanish train to make a trip that would usually take 6 hours on a French train (more on the atrocities of the Spanish rail system later). We shared a compartment with a man from Barcelona and his son. He was kind enough to force food on us, and soon we were talking to them – in Spanish, mind you. He was Catalan, and we got to talking about Catalonia, which is one of the many autonomous regions in Spain. He explained to us that soon it would be all over for Madrid as the major city in Spain, and that Barcelona was going to take over. After all, he added with pride, they already had the best soccer team. I don’t know how much stock I should put on this man’s opinion, seeing that he was a waiter at a restaurant at a race track – but he was interesting!
We got into Madrid at about 9:30 the next morning, and checked into a hotel I had read about in my Let’s Go Europe guidebook. It was so nice – high ceilings, stained glass windows on the doors, and chandeliers in each room – and it was only $4.00 a night! After a 2-hour nap (we didn’t get that much sleep on the train), we went looking for food. At a restaurant, we met an American student. He was taking some time off from his Electrical Engineering curriculum to spend a year learning Spanish. His name was Jeff, and he offered to show us around some of the mesones (little bars that serve hors d’ oeuvres, called tapas). We had a good time that night, and had arranged to meet him and his sister before we left, but somehow our wires got crossed and it didn’t work out.
The next day was spent shopping, but we also took the time to check out this little restaurant I had found in my guidebook called Mexico Lindo. One of the things I really missed from back home was Mexican food so we had a ball pigging out on margaritas, nachos, tamales, and enchiladas. I even had Kahlua and cream, even though the waiter looked at me as if I were crazy when I explained to him what. I wanted. I do have to add that Mexican food must be pretty exotic in Europe, as the restaurants are hard to find, and the prices are double what we would pay in the United States.
That night we went to see Indiana Jones y el templo maldito (you know, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!). It was in Spanish, but I didn’t have much trouble following the action, because I had already seen the movie in English and in French. We then went to another tablao flamenco, but, although the costumes and the dancing were exceptional, I preferred the one I had seen in Barcelona.
The next morning we had planned to go to Toledo, which is not far from Madrid, but we had a little misunderstanding and ended up getting there that afternoon (our first real run-in with Spanish trains…). When we got there, we only had time to make the tremendous hike from the train station to the gates of the city (the guidebook said to take the bus, but I swear that we never saw one).
Toledo is a magnificent city, built on a hill surrounded by a natural moat. It was absolutely necessary to buy a map because the city is a maze of narrow streets. Even with the aid of a map we managed to get lost! We saw what was said to be E1 Greco’s house, and also his famous painting “The Burial of Count Orgaz”. The cathedral there is also awe-inspiring – very tall and pointy. That is all that we saw before we had to take a train back to Madrid.
On our last day in Spain we decided to get some culture, so we went to the Prado Museum and toured its collection for a while. We then went to Retiro Park. It was a beautiful formally designed park, but rather stark and bare. I am certain that it would be even more beautiful in spring, when the trees have leaves and the flowers are blooming. There is a large pond in the center and people were out on it in rowboats. Then we visited the campus at the Universidad de Madrid, which was huge and kind of depressing. For my last meal (in Madrid), I had paella, a concoction of saffron rice with crustaceans and clams (in their shells!), as well as chicken thighs and sausages – I wonder if this was one of the influences of Louisiana gumbo? I also had sangria with my meal, and, for dessert, I had flan- it was great!
We were again catching a night train – this time to return to Angers. We left Madrid at 10:00 PM, Saturday night and expected to get back home by 7:30 Sunday night. Instead, we got home at 6:30 on Monday morning – with only three hours to spare before we had to report to class. It was awful! First of’ all, we decided to book a sleeper car, so we could get a decent night’s sleep. Things were going fine until we were rousted out of bed at 6:00 in the morning (we were supposed to reach the border at 8:00 AM), and instructed to get on a bus that would take us to another station. Then, we would board another train that would take us to the border. We stumbled off the bus, dragging our luggage, and raced to get on the new train – which then remained in the same place for two and a half hours. I located the town where we were – called Valladolid – on the map and found that we were only 3 hours out of Madrid!!! We still had a 6 hour trip ahead of us just to get to the border! I ask you – could it get any worse? You bet! We had to share our compartment with two obnoxious, lecherous Moroccans and a Portuguese family of seven. If the train hadn’t been so crowded we would have moved to another compartment.
We got into Hendaye and were herded through customs along with thousands of Portuguese passengers – there must have been some kind of pilgrimage or convention or something! We were very relieved to be back in France, where we understood the language and where the trains are always on time! We got into Angers with just enough time to take a sorely needed shower and prepare ourselves for class that morning. I made sure that my teachers knew that, although I had spent a harrowing 32 hours without sleep, I had been dedicated enough to show up for class (even though I was a physical and emotional wreck). I hope that they were suitably impressed with me.
The weekend after our February break, the Louisiana group was once again invited to La Fleche, a town not far from Angers where there is a chapter of France-Louisiane. We had planned a soiree where we would make typical Louisiana dishes. We made red beans and rice and chicken jambalaya. It was great – someone brought out a record player and spun some Dixieland jazz and Cajun music for us to dance to. None of us knew the real dance steps, but we faked them – we figured that they wouldn’t know better!
Other than the weekend in La Fleche, things have been pretty calm. Apparently, Fat Tuesday is not a big celebration in France. We heard that there is a festival of flowers in Nice, which it far south, but we had classes to attend, so we could not make the trip down there. We did have a Mardi Gras celebration, but it was pretty feeble in comparison to the real thing. Most of us managed to have enough of a hangover to miss class, claiming that we had a right because Mardi Gras was part of our heritage (you wouldn’t expect a Jewish person to miss Hanukkah, would you?) Think about it.