Immersed in an eternal theatre


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Category: International 13 Nov 11


On a stopover last weekend in London—on my way to Spain—over a thoroughly English meal of daal, basmati rice, Greek yoghurt and apple crumble from his aunt’s farm near Paris, an old friend reminded me that, actually, I had been to Spain. “We were twenty, students,” he began. I remembered. He’d found cheap tickets from London to Rome. I agreed, unhesitatingly. When we disembarked we discovered we’d arrived in San Sebastian. Where are we? I asked. Spain. Needless to say, that memory is a haze of forays of dark tapas bars, yellow hot courtyards screaming with Basque separatist graffiti, stunning views, and always in the backdrop that endless blue of the Cantabrian Sea. If Christopher Columbus could land in Trinidad and think it the East, I could go to Spain and think it Italy.

This time I was more prepared. After the Spanish Embassy informed me that I had been selected as a “distinguished” visitor to Spain by the Fundación Carolina, a developmental organisation which promotes exchanges in education and science between Spain and Latin America and sent me an itinerary that included Madrid, Barcelona, Cordoba and Toledo, I felt that as a journalist this trip could not have come at a better time. It’s turbulent times in Europe. The US economy is dull and sagging. Room is being created at the top. A new world order more inclusive of a developing world led by the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries. China may well prop up Europe at this rate. I hope to see it in my lifetime.

As the world falls apart we in T&T, with limited oil and gas reserves can no longer pretend that Latin America isn’t on our doorstep. If as dots on the world map we want to survive we need to hook up with them with our own Spanish links. On a good day we can see the outline of Venezuela, hundreds of Venezuelans live among us, Spanish is a compulsory second language in secondary school, Christmas in T&T is unimaginable without parang, and our capital is Port-of-Spain. In honour of our Spanish heritage this is the first of a series on Spain in November 2011, in the form of a diary, the only way to keep track of this whirlwind tour of Spain.

Friday 4, Saturday 5, November. London

Apart from pockets of dissent, a march in Trafalgar Square, clusters of people camping outside of St Paul’s Cathedral there is no evidence of a British “Arab Spring”. Central London is abuzz as always and Harrods window dressings in expectation of Christmas shoppers are exceptionally lavish, ice queen themed: crystal, fur, black silk, chiffon. Still, that’s central London with it’s obscene concentration of wealth. My British Londoner friends, mostly middleclass, many journalists, say they are learning to live with smaller expectations. The streets in London’s outer zones are quieter, with more empty spaces and a smell of disappointment. The shop girls remind me more of the New Delhi variety ten years ago, fawning, on the cusp of desperate, something one didn’t see before. Now the Delhi girls don’t give too much of a damn. India has plenty of customers.

Sunday November 6, 2011 
On the flight to Madrid, from London I resolve, aloud to my husband, to limit the consumption of vino and bread, resist the urge to sit around in coffee shops, get distracted with bargains or take long siestas. It’s a major global city, the third largest in the EU (after London and Berlin) with a population that’s five times bigger than Trinidad (at around 6.2 million) and the capital of the country with the third largest GDP in the EU. Now, as Ireland, Portugal, Greece, and one of the final frontiers, Italy show signs of toppling, I am curious to see if Spain was next. We arrive at the new terminal of the Aeropuerto Internacional de Madrid-Barajas, the gateway to the Iberian Peninsula which dazzles, is vast, steel and glass futuristic, lit with a thousand moon shaped roof lights.

We make our way up several escalators to customs where our passports are stamped in five seconds to an elevator and a shuttle train where we collect our baggage. This feels more like Germany than Spain.
We are met by Ines our interpreter, guide and country consultant. A former banker and lawyer, she is warm, funny, knowledgeable and so efficient that we immediately let our guard down and let her take care of us. Under a light rain our taxi made our way past suburbia to central Madrid, which by virtue of its geographical position roughly at the centre of Iberia, was declared the Hapsburg capital of Spain by Felipe 11 in 1561. Tired, hungry, uncertain of what exactly we wanted to eat or drink, Ines Perez de Rada guides us through a tangle of curved streets, alleyways and steps, Flemish balconied buildings of red brick and grey stone, slate tiled towers towards the Mercado de San Miguel.

This feels like pure decadence, a feast for syberites, with varied colours, textures and shapes of foods, meats, sweets, desserts, oils, fruit, wine, vegetables, coffee, and chocolate of Spain and Europe arranged like renaissance still art in stalls. The idea of the ‘tapa’ is wonderful as it minimises the transactional nature of eating out. A delicious bite-sized delicacy on crisp bread dipped in olive oil. We stop, taste wine, olive, cheese and seafood and gorge on marzipan and Crème brûlée. We buy brown bagfuls of deep crimson cherries and ripe plums while marvelling at enormous peaches. In this market, where people move around the stalls, or sit on bar stools, I feel part of an eternal moving theatre in which we are both spectators and actors; lovers feeding one another olives, an unseeing grieving woman, a grandfather holding a baby, a mother rebuking an overexcited child, young men posing like peacocks glancing at the chic girl with dark eyebrows. There is an intimacy in Spain in public places that is warming even to a lonely traveller.

Now warmed by Spanish people, tapas, and some more wine, we make our way to the Puerta Del Sol, Spain’s answer to London’s Trafalgar Square, or New York’s Time Square. Originally one of the gates in the city wall that surrounded Madrid in the 15th century, now containing the illuminated and stately post office and a mounted statue of Charles 111 of Spain, it is difficult to believe that it was the scene of May 15 protests, where hundreds of mostly young Spaniards disenchanted with its socialist government’s mismanagement of funds, and high unemployment of 21 per cent camped in protest in an “indignado” (the disgusted ones) movement that spread to some 60 cities across Spain. The movement which aimed to gather momentum appeared to peter out last month.

But this could change after the November 20 election in which the the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) is almost sure to lose to the People’s Party (Partido Popular) if opinion polls are to be trusted. Spaniards believe that tough austerity measures will have to be implemented which could after the election trigger stronger protests both by the trade union movement and the two million unemployed young people. Imagine all of Trinidad unemployed. Imagine us holding back like the Spaniards with no surge in crime.

The waiters I spoke to earlier believe the factors holding back the Spanish hoards from crime is a strong social security system, family support, and a high educational standard (as many as 35 per cent of Spaniards go to University) which allows many to try their luck in other EU countries. There is a lesson to be learned there for us. I was to catch my breath many times in this country. The first came that very evening at the Plaza Mayor. Bathed in liquid gold light in light rain, a vast square, surrounded by continuously arcaded buildings and hundreds of balconies, lit by tall lamps, it was designed by the famous Spanish architect Juan Gomez de Mora for Felipe 3rd, initially as a giant theatre.

For centuries, Spaniards have stood on these balconies, witnessing the Inquisition, executions, coronations, festivals, demonstrations, plays, bullfights. From somewhere came the sound of a Spanish guitar. People are walking and standing about. My husband approaches a man for a light, and in exchange, on impulse I offer him a plum. We laugh at the ridiculous gesture. We had begun to speak the language of the Spaniards that of living completely in the moment within the comforting shadow of centuries.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur