It had been twenty five years since I’d last visited Toledo. I was a student and had just wrapped up the best six months I’d ever had. I had learned to converse in Spanish which was a great boost for my academic ego and had a lot of fun on top of it. I had such a great time that it changed the course of my life. Here is a link to my posts about Spain which include my journal entries while I was a student as well as e-mails and the most recent being posts about Spain.
After Spain I wanted to do it again and so took French as another minor just so I could study abroad again. I ended up going to Lyon, and Besançon France for another six months then did a NAFTA study abroad in Mexico.
These experiences led me to look for work outside of the USA after I graduated from OSU. I remember sitting in my apartment using the relatively new internet to look for jobs and feeling a bit down as it was harder than I expected. So many of my friends already had jobs and I felt like the boat had left and I was stranded on the island of the unemployed. I ended up receiving two interview requests, one for a cruise ship to sell merchandise onboard and another to teach English in Japan. One thing that most of my acquaintances don’t know is that I also received a call from the CIA as I had applied and they liked my language capabilities. I told the recruiter that I needed to check out the English job before I could make a decision and for them to do a deep background check.
The recruiter agreed and told me to call back when I had made a decision. It was then off to Chicago for my interview where most of it was in a group setting and around language grammar. The recruiter asked how many knew what the “past progressive” was and I was the only person to raise my hand. That answer got me the job, I was off to Japan and my life was about to completely change.
Going back to Toledo, the place that was to determine the course of my life, has been on my list of things to do for two decades. However, since I have been tied to Japan through marriage for 15 years all my time and money has gone there and there wasn’t anytime to visit Europe again. Thanks to Japan’s COVID restrictions barring foreigners for the time being I decided to take the opportunity to go back.
My first course of action was to jump back on Facebook after a long hiatus asking who would be there and tagging my Spanish friends. After 20 long years I was very happy to receive responses and that everyone was willing to meet! The second item was to plan out my itinerary which was to visit all the tourist sites, which are mostly churches and other buildings related to the Catholic Church.
Since I had an itinerary and set meeting times with my friends I didn’t want to risk not being able to get on a flight (I fly free due to my work) I bought the ticket from Charles de Gaulle to Madrid. I also didn’t want to fuss with figuring out the metro so splurged on a private taxi from the airport to my hotel.
I stayed at the Hotel Carlos V but just dropped my bags as I was very excited to get out and about in Toledo again. I chose this hotel because it is right next to the main square of Zocodover and I wanted to be able to take a rest throughout the day without having to take a taxi. The hotels within the walls of this medieval city are rather small and I would have preferred Hotel Beatriz or the Parador de Toledo as they are much nicer but again, I didn’t want to take a taxi.
Stepping out of the hotel and into the Plaza de Zocodover filled me with incredible nostalgia. It made me realize just how quickly life passes as twenty five years is no small amount of time. We were all bright eyed, optimistic students ready for a great future thanks to our new ability to speak Spanish. Now, we have all lived another quarter century and my memories belonged in another time when the world seemed much less complex. And it was! Computers and the internet were brand new and I think I was the only one with a laptop. In order to use the internet we had to go to “La Sala de Computadoras” and could only access a very slow, dial-up internet for one hour a day. The only thing we could send were e-mails but as not many used computers in those days most preferred to simply call home. Those calls also had to be relatively short as they were expensive and we had to call collect.
The memories were also tempered by a 110 degree heatwave and the wrong season. I studied in both spring and summer semesters back in 1998 but my strongest memories are of the spring, not the summer. Instead of students walking about the city it was 100% tourists. The foreign students, although still with one week to go were out traveling Europe, and the Spanish students were on break. It is so hot in Toledo that many businesses also go on their own holidays and so many were closed if you got off the main commercial street which caters to tourists. I was really hoping to eat at Los Cuatro Tiempos as I remember drinking beers there with my classmates and our school coordinator Yuki. Unfortunately it was closed for holidays as well.
I was really hoping for my first meal in Toledo to be jamón ibérico and Los Cuatro Tiempos always had plenty of those ham legs hanging from the ceiling. I had noticed a new store on Calle Commercio called Jamoneria Risco II which only sold that delicious meat and so that is where I went for a beer and a bocadillo
After I sated my appetite I walked down to my old school La Fundación José Ortega y Gasset. I didn’t enter yet as I was going to meet our coordinator who was still there after 25 years for dinner.
I then went to a few other places that have stood out in my memory for the past two decades: Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo, O’Brien’s Pub and then Calle Commercio for shopping.
The cathedral is the most visited building by tourists and is top of mind when I think of Toledo. My memories of my visits in 1998 are very poor and I only really remembered the massive columns inside as well as the exterior. About five years ago I had a dark, vivid dream that I visited it but upon taking a tour in VR realized nothing in my dream was correct. I think it was my subconscious letting me know how influential my study abroad was and that I was going to return. On my visit this time I was glad to see they offered audio sets for the tour and I spent the next couple of hours inside. Here are a few things that really stuck out to me.
I am fascinated by history and was amazed to learn that the father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather of Queen Isabella “La Catolica” are here, a picture of two of them are above. Queen Isabella along with her husband King Ferdinand are giants in Spanish history having completed La Reconquista which was conquering the rest of Spain from the Moors and also funding Christopher Columbus’s trip to the Americas. I could imagine the crowds of medieval citizens that would would have gathered here for the entombment. Here they have lain for the past five hundred years as the world continues to change, now being visited by mostly tourists with a scant understanding of the magnanimity of those that rest here.
Another aspect was the golden monstrance which holds the eucharist. The eucharist is the most sacred aspect of Christianity yet it is housed in gold stolen from the natives in Latin America by Coréz and Pizarro. There is much blood on that gold and it was this stolen gold which payed for all of those incredible cathedrals themselves.
The choir was also very impressive, especially the detail as well as thoughts of all who sang here through the centuries the majority now long forgotten to the passage of time.
I must have spent three hours inside taking it all in listening to the audio and lost in my thoughts. After that it was time for beer and I was a bit disappointed to learn that O’Brien’s pub wouldn’t be open until 6:00 PM. I studied with the owner Brian as he was newly arrived in Toledo looking to learn Spanish and open up a bar. His first bar was actually in the suburbs and I remember him telling me he decided to hurry and open up another location on the main square so “some other Irishman doesn’t do it first and I’m stuck in the suburbs stewing about it.” I’m happy to see it is still going strong but was also disappointed to learn that Brian was in Ireland on vacation (along with so many other shop owners in Toledo).
So I decided to go shopping and just get a sense of what I wanted to buy. I needed to get two things primarily which were a sword and shield which I couldn’t afford as a student, and a rosary for my mother from the cathedral. I had already picked up the rosary but wanted to see which store was best for the weapons.
There are a LOT of stores which sell swords and shields and many look like this.
After checking out the stores I went back to the hotel for a shower and to rest up for my first meeting which was with Yuki our school counselor now the director! I was very excited and given the 100 degree temperatures and non-stop activities since I had arrived in Europe four days ago I needed to restore my energy.
I was so excited though the energy came easily. Walking into the school I found about four students in the lobby and a new conserje. I’ll always remember Fernando who was an older gentleman back in 1998 and has now passed away. Since none of us had cell phones he would announce on the intercom when we had a call from home. One of my classmates had the last name of Jacobs and in Spanish the J is pronounced as an H. So he would always pronounce her name “Hackobs.”
The students didn’t stick around long but I had a great time talking with the new conserje who approached me immediately asking what I needed. I let him know I was waiting for Yuki and we ended up talking about my memories of the place and what it was like now. I also signed the returning student guestbook and showed him plenty of pictures from Toledo in 1998.
Once Yuki arrived she had a few things to finish up and so allowed me to go ahead and take a self tour of the school. There were very few students there as most were traveling Europe. The main thing on my mind was if the ghost I had seen was still there. I wrote a post about ghosts where I relate the story which is here:
The hallways were dark, many dormitories empty with only one student jamming to music in their room. Otherwise it was pretty silent and in my mind I called out to that ghost wondering if she were watching me. I made my way up to the tower and looked for the trap door which upon opening showed that it had been built over previous buildings. Supposedly there are a few tombs down there and legend has it that a few of my adventurous classmates tied some bedsheets together and rappelled down into it. That was the story at least so perhaps it was no surprise we all had ghost stories of our own soon after. But as always with stories like these events become hearsay and combined with wild calimocho nights who knows what is true. Apparently it was the crazier girl who actually went down pulled back up by my classmate Jeff. I did find the trap door but it had been sealed shut.
I didn’t spend too much time wandering the school and soon was back down to meet Yuki without any new ghost sightings. It was so great to see her again and as though not twenty years had passed but perhaps only a few weeks. As I mentioned above we could talk about anything over beers 20 years ago at Los Cuatro Tiempos and could do the same now, just with two decades of updates. She took me to a fabulous restaurant called Restaurante Venta de Aires which for the same ambiance and fare would be a five star restaurant here in San Francisco. We spoke in Spanish, English and Japanese. I became keenly aware of the limitations of my Spanish and Japanese but unlike when I was a student the conversation could still flow very well even due to those limitations even though I often butchered more than a few sentences.
The following day was spent touring many churches. I am very thankful for Google maps in that it guided me exactly to where I needed to go. We didn’t have Google maps when I was a student and I remember getting lost heading back to La Fundación heading back very late on one of my first nights as a student. We had partied at La Marea and I was still living in the dorms having not yet moved to the family stay. I took a wrong turn somewhere and became completely disoriented around 1:00 AM in the morning. There I was in the labyrinth of Toledo with nobody in sight except for a street cleaner with no ability to speak Spanish. I thought for sure I would be spending the night outside on a cobblestone street. Then I was saved by pure luck as another student who had spent the previous semester in Toledo strolled by. If he hadn’t I would have been in big trouble.
I had visited a church or two on class trips back in 1998 but I really didn’t remember them. I learned that Toledo now has a green tourist pass which gives you access to around 8 churches and so I had purchased that in advance for only $10. As you can see from my Google Map timeline I trekked all over the city.
I started at Ermita “Mezquita” Christo de La Luz which was a mosque turned into a church when Toledo was reconquered by the Catholics. As with most churches there is an incredible story attached. The legend goes that when the King entered upon conquering the city a ray of light shown upon a section of wall and upon knocking out a bit of that wall a crucifix was revealed within. The king dropped his shield and proclaimed that given this sign they would convert the mosque into a church and would be where the first mass was held.
As you can see the architectural style is that of a mosque and you can also still see a verse in Arabic.
I then went to La Iglesia de los Jesuitas. If you know your history you know the Jesuits have sometimes had a strained relationship with Rome and other denominations within the church. Apparently the Jesuits sided with the wrong people earning the ire of King Charles III. They were kicked out of Spain and if I remember correctly the Pope didn’t let them back into Rome but I cannot recall clearly. Anyway, they lost possession of this church in 1766 not getting it back until the 20th century.
One thing that strikes me as odd is that Toledo is full of these ancient, priceless churches yet you do not see priests, nuns or even the faithful anywhere. They are all filled with tourists! They seem as relics of an age long past – and they are! – which serve only as tourist attractions today. Toledo is a relatively small city with an overabundance of churches so the congregation would naturally be very small. If you could take one church and put it in America it would be the one everyone flocks to. Furthermore, Catholicism has been suffering a long, slow death for decades. The religion is in the DNA of the culture but nobody actually practices anymore. My host mother told me that the church still has enormous power in Spain and from what I gather this isn’t much appreciated by much of the population that has moved on. As for my own thoughts, the church has been an incredible impediment to progress where it has grown too powerful. Just look at all of Latin America, the Philippines, Spain, Italy and so on. They are not innovative countries, seemingly imprisoned in the past by a church whose time has passed.
As this post is about Spain I don’t want to dive into the current politics in the USA but it seems that Christianity in general has morphed into something decidedly Un-Christian here in the USA. The people seem to have elevated a known con-man, grifter and misogynist who never misses an opportunity to insult someone to that of a saint. Jesus healed the lame, Trump makes fun of them. And so just like with those countries where religion has become too powerful the USA also seems to be moving backwards to a time that was, repelled by any sort of progress.
The next stop was Iglesia San Salvador. This is one with Roman foundations, with a Visigoth base, a mosque built on top of that then a church over that!
You can go beneath the church to see these actual foundations. In Toledo you can knock down a wall and find a mosque! And that was true of this church as passing through the underside you go through a Visigothic structure to a room that was a mosque.
Next was La Iglesia de San Tomé. The main attraction here is a famous painting by El Greco called The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. For me however, it wasn’t the painting which interested me but that the statue of Jesus appears to be holding a log. Behave or Jesus may bash you with it!
Next was Sinagoga Maria La Blanca (Sinagoga Ben Shoshan). This is located in the old Judería and unlike many religious buildings was not originally a mosque. Instead it was actually constructed in the late 12th (early 13th) century to be a synagogue but by a moorish architect. This is unusual in itself but even more interesting is that it was able to be built as the Catholics were not permissive of other religions like the Moors. However, the treasurer to the king was Jewish and in great standing thereby given permission by the king himself to build a synagogue. Unfortunately the Jews were later expelled from Spain in 1492 and so since then has been used for many other things than a synagogue.
It is interesting to note that after 522 years Spain wanted to make amends for a “historic mistake” offering Sephardic Jews citizenship in 2014. Link from NPR.
Next it was to the Monasterio de San Juan de Los Reyes. This is even more historically significant than many other religious buildings in that it is where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were supposed to be entombed. Instead they opted for Granada once the city was reconquered from the Moors. Apparently Isabella didn’t like this building and called it “nonsense” right to the architect. Wow, that was a very bad day for that man, kind of like an NFL placekicker missing the winning field goal in the Super Bowl.
Another fascinating aspect is you can see iron manacles hanging on the outside wall. These were brought there by Spanish prisoners of the Moors in Granada who upon liberation at the fall of the city carried these chains back with them to be hung on the church.
Something else I learned is that these buildings were painted, full of color which is hard to imagine as we just look at unpainted stone today. One reason for this is many buildings were used to help plague victims and the sterilization procedures took off the paint. Also, I don’t know of any paint that would still look good after millennia. I cannot even imagine Toledo full of color but would have loved to see it that way.
I then stopped for lunch at Restaurante Museo de Productos Castilla-La Mancha. I didn’t plan on it but it was cool inside, I was tired and hungry and this was along the way. Much to my surprise this became a highlight of my day! I ordered the set menu which came with three plates and a half bottle of wine. To be in Toledo, the entire city a historic monument, eating wonderful food, drinking refreshing wine while immersing myself in the past was simply wonderful. I am not good at describing food so here is a picture although my half bottle of wine is obscured.
My final stop was to Real Colegio Doncellas Nobles which is where the aristocracy sent their daughters to learn how to be good wives and mothers. Upon graduation from this boarding school I would imagine these were the most sought after women in the land. How I’d love to travel back in time and just observe the women, their classes, their conversations and what life was really like for them. We can read the history books but it is very difficult to really get a sense of the zeitgeist, of what an ordinary day was like for them. Did they have love interests, was marriage and child rearing their only interests or did they aspire to something else perhaps looking at Queen Isabella for inspiration? Did they end up living happy lives and are their graves even known anymore?
Perhaps many of them rest under supermarket parking lots, buildings and whose memory has been lost to time. They were here, in this very building yet I sense nothing, not even a faded shadow of their presence. The only one who is still here is Cardinal Juan Martínez Silíceo, buried in 1557. Just think how long ago that was: Cortez had recently arrived in Mexico in 1519, the vast majority of Native Americans had no idea Europeans were about to unleash disease which were to kill most of them, almost all of humanity were involved in farming knowing little to nothing of the rest of the world. And here I am visiting in the year 2022 in a city where in most places, time seems to have stood still.
After my tour I went back to the hotel for a shower and a rest. I was meeting two Spanish friends who I had not seen in twenty years. We had a few drinks at a small hidden away bar called Tierra then went to the Terraza Miradero. This did not exist when I was a student, instead we would take the escalator down into an enclosed galleria which had a number of bars our favorite being La Marea. One of the friends I was with is Raquel, the daughter of the owner of La Marea. We are the same age and used to party quite a bit in her fathers bar. As the night progressed I suddenly saw a business card thrust in front of my face that said La Marea! I turned around and it was Manolo, Raquel’s father who was the owner of the bar! What a great reunion it was!! The only trouble was it was three native speakers and me so I often had trouble keeping up with the conversation. Imagine a radio with a bunch of static where you can only understand snippets every three or four seconds. This is when the language learner can feel entirely defeated. Sometimes you think your ability is fantastic while others you feel as though you’ve learned very little.
Saturday was reserved for shopping, wandering around the city and then a visit to the Alcázar which is the humongous fortress looking a little out of place amongst the low rooftops and church spires. I had never been in as I do not believe it was open to tourists back in 1998. It opened as a military museum sometime in the past twenty (I don’t remember and Wikipedia doesn’t specify) so I was looking forward to finally visiting.
My favorite part of the visit was learning about the ancient original inhabitants – various tribes consisting of Celts, Iberians, Phoenicians and others then the Romans and Visigoths and seeing reconstructions of what they looked like.
Just imagine the battles, the complete genocide, as one tribe of human beings took over another over the decades. Life as the saying goes was “nasty, brutish and short.” No matter how well you’re trained the chances of surviving a battle or being turned into a slave are 100% should your side lose. Even if you win, what are the chances of surviving? How is life experienced for these people? You just go day to day wondering if you’ll live to see the next? Or how about the tribespeople? You are born into a small agrarian village knowing nothing except how to do the basics in order to survive and perhaps a little tribal lore. You spend day in and day out planting or gathering food, constructing shelter or perhaps trading with nearby friendly tribes. Then one day a terrifying army of humans you do not recognize, that does not speak your language, burns down your village and kills everyone. They then do the same to the neighboring village, then the next, until everything you have ever known has been destroyed. To compare it would be like nuclear bombs destroying every civilization on the planet. Thinking about it this way are we not in a similar scenario? We’re still mostly tribal only on a much grander scale and with vastly more terrifying weapons.
I’ve skipped ahead talking about the Alcázar and did not want to neglect three other activities of the day. The first was to finally buy a large sword and shield. I had purchased a small sword when I was a student as I didn’t have much money. Now that I’m midlife I could finally make the purchase I wanted. I wandered into a few stores and finally settled on one that specialized in those two things. The shopkeeper was very helpful letting me know the difference between industrially produced swords and the handmade ones crafted by his own family right there in Toledo. I saw replicas of swords owned by El Cid, Cortez and Pizarro. He told me that the Cortez and Pizarro swords were most popular given they are fancier and those names more widely known. However, El Cid is the most celebrated warrior in Spain and so I opted for his sword; a massive piece of steel with little polish or refinement seen in swords of the conquistadors. To me, the sword of El Cid is an honest representation of what a sword is designed to do which is to kill. It has no flare, no polish, just a heavy, sharp piece of steel with only an unsophisticated design on the hilt.
I had lunch at Mesón Solarejo which is located just off Calle Commercio on a side street. I didn’t want to leave Spain without having paella and this restaurant had it included in the set lunch (with a half bottle of wine of course. Normally, I would avoid a restaurant being frequented by a lot of tourists preferring the gems known only to locals but like most restaurants in Toledo, the food is delicious and no matter where you go it will be an authentic experience. Toledo isn’t conducive to overly expensive poor quality restaurants like in big cities. There isn’t much to do in Toledo unless you’re catering to tourists or work in the Catholic church so just about everyone is Spanish and were most likely born and raised there.
Since this is off the main street there are a number of tourists and at the table next to me was a Spanish lady with a German guy. I wondered what their relationship was as the German spoke very elementary Spanish. It didn’t seem like your normal student/teacher arrangement but perhaps a date? This is one aspect I really enjoy about Europe: in the big cities you’ll hear many different languages often with varying degrees of ability. Here in San Francisco you can hear foreign languages but it always stays within ethnic groups, you never hear cross cultural language exchanges.
The last activity I didn’t want to neglect was drinking beer at La Abadía. This is a craft beer restaurant with an exposed brick, nooks and crannies atmosphere that make it seem a natural part of this historic city. I stopped in here twice during my stay in order to rest, cool down and catch a buzz. During my travels I absolutely live in Google Maps and during these breaks I read up on the history of places I’m going to visit, upload pictures (I’m a Local Guide on Maps), and discover other places of interest.
That night I was going to meet up with Raquel again and she was going to take me to a fiesta. I had no idea what this meant, perhaps it was just a house party? I had forgotten that this is Spain where the fiestas will always be larger and more fantastic than what I’m used to in America. She picked me up at 10:00 PM at “el reloj de Zocodover” which is the large clock in the main square and drove me about 20 minutes outside the city to a small town called Cobisa. Given that Catholicism is part of Spain’s DNA most of these big events are honoring something religious but the atmosphere is more like a carnival. There are rides, games, food, drinks and wonderful performances on two separate stages. The fiesta goes on all night and when I mean all night I mean until 10:00 AM the next morning! The crowd is also not what you’d expect given an American perspective, there are entire families with small children dancing, eating and enjoying themselves even at 3:00 AM! The Spanish certainly know how to work to live and not live to work like we do in America.
I believe this fiesta was in celebration of Santa Ana y La Virgen de las Angustias. I had sworn Raquel told me it was honoring a saint that was actually a Moor (Muslim) but I didn’t understand clearly. So I looked the fiesta up on the Cobisa website and got the name above. From what I understand Santa Ana is the mother of Mary and La Virgen de las Angustias is “Virgin of Heartaches,” must be Mary since she is who we’re talking about in Catholicism when speaking of a virgin. However, when I search the terms I cannot find any information about the origin of “Las Angustias / heartaches.” This is something I’ll have to ask my Mom or perhaps a priest should I come across one.
The very first thing I did was buy a Calimocho. My host Raquel, having been born and living in Toledo her entire life knew pretty much everyone, she is a social butterfly! Then we waited a bit as we were to meet with one of her best friends. Once she arrived we had a bite to eat and not long after the shows started which like Spanish fiestas, are much more grand and wonderful than I could imagine. The show started out with a Squid Game theme.
It may sound silly but I was fascinated by not only the performers singing and dancing some of my favorite Spanish songs but the audience as well! Here in America popular Spanish songs come on but only Mexicans would be able to sing along let alone know what they are saying. There I was in a crowd where everyone could understand, sing and dance natively.
It was around 3:30 AM by the time I took the video above. Since I was meeting my host mother for lunch the following day I really needed to get some sleep. I felt like a bit of a party pooper as I think Raquel would have liked to stay until sunrise but she was gracious enough to take me back to the hotel.
The following day I woke up around 9:00 AM. I had assumed I would take a taxi but Manolo graciously offered to drive me. That was very welcome as I learned getting a taxi in Toledo isn’t the easiest as there is no Uber, Lyft or even the European service Free Now (mytaxi) service. Trying to hail a taxi the old way by calling or looking for one also isn’t very convenient and takes time. But on a Sunday in the summer in Toledo I cannot say for sure that any taxi drivers would actually be working. I am certain that none would be in Mora which is a small Spanish village about 30 minutes outside of Toledo where my host mother lives. Nevertheless I was sure everything would work out and it did.
Manolo picked me up at the Zocodover clock just as his daughter Raquel had done the night before. I asked him how he was and he replied “borracho!” Apparently he got in later than I did arriving home at 4:00 AM! From what I understood he had been at another fiesta that had something to do with bulls. On the drive down Spain provided me with another example of its ancient history. We passed the ruined Castillo Almonacid. For those fascinated by history passing a ruined castle is one thing, but passing a ruined castle that is so ancient nobody knows much about it is quite another. My mind tries to imagine who lived within its walls and what events occurred there. One cannot just do Google search or even look in Wikipedia to figure it out. the only clues Wikipedia offers up is the following
The village has a medieval castle. The ruined building is open to the public. The structure has a perimeter of about 220 metres. It may date from the 12th century, but it appears to have replaced an older castle of Visigothic or Islamic origin. Set on a hill-top, the castle has visual connection with fortifications at the neighbouring settlements of Mora de Toledo and Orgaz.
My only hope would be to learn Spanish to a native level and dive into dusty tomes deep with a national library in Madrid but even then, I believe there is little to find. There it sits on top of its parched hill seeming nothing more than a pile of old stones guarding its ancient secrets. My mind conjures up images of Visigoth lords, of Moorish aristocracy: their families, transacting business, worshiping, loving, killing, being killed, engaging in mundane tasks, eating, sleeping, grooming, entire generations experiencing life in those times. Where are their tombs and graveyards, who are their ancestors? Upon a visit I would calm my mind and ask the spirits to give me a glimpse of those times but the energy is too dispersed, the memories destroyed by continuous war and centuries of the hot Spanish sun.
The villages which must have supported that castle remain however, and I was visiting the one called Mora. Manolo dropped me off at the main square; I thanked him profusely and gave him a hug as well as a metal San Francisco cable car magnet. Then I was there alone, in a very small Spanish town in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday with very little open. I had checked out of the hotel and had my backpack and carry-on suitcase as I was heading to Madrid after the visit. The impact of the Moorish conquest a millennia ago let me know its presence again. Anywhere in the world one expects to see one or two reminders of the past in grand form when visiting a large city whether it be a famous building that has been preserved or museum but it is another to see the genuine thing in a small town in the countryside. Perhaps it is due to me being an American and the only truly ancient things we have are burial mounds. In Spain, these reminders are everywhere. I cannot find any information specifically about this City Hall but this must be a reconstruction, I imagine over some other building. The name “Mora” according to Wikipedia is either Latin “Morum” meaning Moral or perhaps even pre-Roman “Mor” which is heap of stones. Either way, I was in an ancient village.
I was to meet my host mother at this building and sure enough there she was and now with a husband! Even after 20 years it was though as not much time had passed at all. My Spanish is good enough and my hosts patience strong enough that we could converse about a wide range of subjects easily. She was taking me to the most popular restaurant in Mora called El Molino de Helí. We had some time to kill so stopped first in a cafe. There was a tall looking man with his grown daughters at another table and my host Mom (Julia) let me know that he was a Judo instructor, had his own dojo and that sometimes Japanese would come for a visit. The world certainly has gotten smaller. A great portion of Spanish history is war with those unlike them and now I hear there is a Japanese dojo in this small, ancient town. I would have liked to ask him about it but unfortunately did not take the opportunity.
Upon entering it seemed as though everyone who wasn’t still sleeping had gathered there. It wasn’t a large place but all the tables and bar space were full. We had another thirty minutes to kill before the upstairs dining area opened up so drank a beer. During this trip I drank plenty of alcohol and doing so learned that for the Spaniards who had to drive non-alcoholic beer is very popular. It was ordered just about every time I met up with friends and acquaintances who had to drive afterwards. This was interesting to me because I order beer more-so for a buzz, not the flavor. If I didn’t want to feel the effects of alcohol I would order a soda for the sugar, not a non-alcoholic beer.
When it was time to be seated it seemed as though the waitress was very put out to learn there would only be three of us not four, my host mother thought my wife would be joining us; the waitress made a show of dragging one table and chair away from ours and it was quite obvious she wasn’t too happy. She seemed to be mid-thirties and had quite a few tattoos. The fact that so many Spanish had tattoos was very surprising to me. She seemed overworked, stressed out and was sweating quite a bit even though the lunch hour had just begun and there weren’t more than five tables of customers.
She spoke quickly when explaining the specials and Julia let her know I was a foreigner and would have to speak a little more slowly. She said in a commanding tone to “look at me” as though it would help in making communication easier. I looked directly into her eyes in a way that expressed a profound love and sexual interest to which she let out a great laugh as immediate chemistry seemed to materialize between us in that very instant. From that moment onward I addressed her as guapa (beautiful) and she was affectionate in return. I probably could have had a girlfriend should I had remained.
The conversation with my host mother her husband included a number of topics such as how they had met (dancing in Madrid!) the influence of the Catholic church in Toledo (still very strong) and our families.
I still hadn’t figured out exactly how I was going to make my way to Madrid since there didn’t seem to be any taxis, let alone anyone working at all except for a few open restaurants. I’m in debt to my host mother and her husband who drove me to the train station in Toledo.
Unfortunately I had missed the train to Madrid but there was another one in an hour. The cost was only $10 but time was a problem as I was meeting Yuki and her family in Madrid for dinner so time was scarce. I noticed that there was a slow trickle of taxis dropping off mostly tourists and so I asked one if they could take me to Madrid. The cost was about $100 and the station employee was astonished I was willing to pay that instead of wait an hour for a $10 train. If I had taken the train I’d not only lose an hour due to waiting but also perhaps another hour and a half while I figured out the metro and made my way to the hotel. I needed a slight rest and get cleaned up before Yuki and her family were to pick me up. I also needed to figure out how things were looking for the flights back to the USA the following day.
The taxi driver and I didn’t speak too much but we were able to make a connection the little we did. He tried to activate Siri on his phone a couple of times and after no response called it a pain in the ass. I responded that Google could be a complete asshole sometimes to me as well. The other thing I mentioned was that I had never seen a granny on a motorbike on the freeway after one had just passed me. He laughed at that and said there were plenty of them in Madrid.
The fare was supposed to be approximately 100 Euro but kept ticking up which he pointed out. I said it was fine because what else were I to do, get out and walk my way to the hotel on the freeway? He found this humorous as well. It was because of this interaction he ended up turning off the meeter when it reached 120 Euro and apologized for it going over. I responded that it was no problem because I did ask what the fair would be “mas o menos” and well, it turned out to be mas! Anyway, I was glad I had made it to my hotel in Madrid after being uncertain in how I was going to get there from a small village in the countryside on a Sunday.
Yuki and her family took me to Restaurante O’Caldiño which again, all of the food was exquisite and conversation fantastic.
I awoke early with the hopes I’d be able to get back to America that day. Again, I fly free due to my work in the industry but it is space available, meaning there has to be open seats 30 minutes before the flight takes off. The flights from Europe to the USA were absolutely packed no matter which country you were in. I checked all the major hubs: Madrid London, Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam and others but every single flight was oversold. Since everywhere was full my best course of action was to list myself on standby for as many flights from Madrid to the USA as I could. I hopped on the hotel shuttle and off to the airport I went.
I learned that Madrid airport is huge and the terminals are a 15 minute bus ride away from each other. I also learned it takes about an hour from the time you step foot in the terminal to the gate due to security checks, immigration and the sheer size where the terminal has its own metro. My standby pass was on the MAD – SFO flight but it was turning out that there wasn’t going to be space. One of my apps told me that all standby passengers were able to get on flights to MIA and ORD but those flights had already closed their doors. I noticed one heading to Dulles was not yet closed but about to do so. This is where language ability was vital but not being native kind of hard to explain to the agent.
You see, I was unsure about how standby for industry people actually worked in Europe. Every country, airport and airline has their own way of doing things. For Iberia I could put myself on standby but was only granted one standby pass, my pass was to San Francisco. When I walked over to the Dulles flight he asked where I was going and of course I responded San Francisco. It took a few tries to explain that I worked in the industry and if he would just check the system he would see me on standby. I had my fingers crossed he could help me then and there because it seemed agents wanted to send you to the main “control” desk which meant I’d have to walk 10 minutes back to it. Also, I learned that for flights departing to America you have to pass through another small security check. So if they sent me back to their control desk I wouldn’t be able to make it back on this flight.
As he checked the system I was able to further explain that all I needed to do was get to America and then I could easily get to San Francisco. The problem was that all flights from Europe to the USA were completely packed so just getting over the pond was my main aim. The gods and this agent finally understood my pleas and he was able to issue me a boarding pass! I was so happy I said “Un abrazo!!” (a hug!) and held out my arms. He said “Por sopuesto!” we embraced and all the agents found that hilarious. If I wasn’t able to get on that flight I would be stuck in Madrid another day or two, have to put up with going through the horrendous process at the airport each day and possibly have to pay about $1,600 for a one-way back to the USA.
And that concludes my adventure in Spain. I may return to edit/add a few additions later; I’ve been waiting too long to finally get this post written down that I want to have it published now.