By Valerie Collins
1993. Aznar and Felipe have just had their big pre-election debate on TV. My son, aged eight, born into democracy and the Autonomous Community of Catalunya, is worried. “If Aznar wins, will it be like Franco?”
Apart from the moustache, what was Franco like?
Fade to Barcelona, 1973, the tail end of la dictadura. Barcelona bustled, worked hard, and went to France for a bit of culture, a bit of porn… The travel agencies put on all-in packages for long weekends and Semana Santa specials: coach to Perpignan return, B&B, and tickets for five films a day – original version, free from iron-fisted censorship. That’s where we saw Last Tango In Paris. And bought depraved publications like Cosmopolitan. One day a colleague at the language school where I taught English wept bitterly. Her new rock-star-look-alike Spanish boyfriend, acquired at a discotheque, had turned out to be a secret policeman who snooped around student bars. She found out when he picked her up in his car and checked beneath it for terrorist bombs.
Just ten years before my son was born, two months before Franco’s death, five political prisoners were executed. Some people say ‘con Franco vivi?amos mejor’. Memories are short. Could it be true? “Who do you think lived better with Franco?” I asked my friend Jordi, an ageing baby boomer like myself. “Me,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “My knees weren’t dodgy, my teeth weren’t falling out, I could see without my glasses…”
Fade to Valencia, August 68. I am staying as a paying guest with Doña Pura, a small, volatile widow with cropped fair hair, to learn Spanish, and -why mince words- to have a good time after the slog of A-levels, despite dire warnings about Spain being a Fascist country (you are Jewish: you ought to know better). Valencia buzzes with sunshine, Seat Seiscientos and well-dressed people. Everything looks, sounds, smells, tastes, new, strange and exciting, including Doña Pura”s cluttered living room. In the living room there is a fridge (a great advance: while back in the UK we were swinging with mini skirts, the Beatles, flower power and free school milk, my husband recalls being sent out every day to buy a large block of ice). There is also a TV (another advance) on an old fashioned carved dresser, presiding over the long dining table. The only other furniture is Doña Pura’s easy chair. She owns a tiny drapers shop, a tiny apartment in Jávea, and her son and son-in-law have jobs, flats, Seiscientos. She is affectionate and hospitable, and as part of her hostess job, she introduces me to Spaniards of my own age, all of whom have jobs and Vespas (the young men; the young women ride side saddle and never ever wear trousers) and sing in folk choirs. And then there was Pedro, Doña Pura’s youngest son, then fifteen. I learned a lot of Spanish from the rows he picked with her at mealtimes, as we watched the one TV channel with its news consisting entirely of Franco inaugurating things, football, bullfighting and folk dancing.
“Spain is a porquería,” Pedro would yell. Then his mother would lose it, shouting and waving her arms and banging the table. “You eat every day – what have you got to moan about?” Pedro did not know the atrocities of the civil war and the starvation that followed it. Think Sarajevo. Think Kosovo. Even my father-in-law, Catalan, republican fighter, welcomed Franco, in so far as his victory meant an end to the war and the many years of violence and near chaos that preceded it. But the post-war by all accounts was even worse. My plump mother-in-law, skeletal in photos of the period, would tell of walking for miles just for a loaf of bread. Rationing continued until 1953, two years after it had ended in Germany.
But for Pedro’s generation, for the childen of victors and vanquished alike, Spain was a stultifying cultural, social, intellectual and economic backwater. My husband agrees: “the whole country was one enormous airless prison.” It was official: in Spain no pasaba nada. In 1965, 25 Years Of Peace were celebrated. The entire eight-storey facade of the Banco Comercial in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya, I’m told, was graced with a portrait of the great saviour, who had finally accomplished his mission: dissidence, social conflict and the Reds had been stamped out of the patria for ever.
But just under the surface of booming tourism and economic development and private property safe from burglars was a hotbed of activity: student unrest, strikes, clandestine trade unions and political parties, Basque and Catalan nationalist movements, worker priests, all supported by exiles in France. But still, everyone agrees, if you kept out of politics you could live very well – in the sense of tranquilamente. Although you could never really forget you were living in a police state. My husband studied law in the sixties. “There was a secret policeman at every lecture. We always recognised them: they were older than us, sat in the back row and never took notes.”
Early in 1969 a State of Exception was declared with its dawn raids, imprisonment and torture. I was there, back in Valencia, this time sharing a student flat. One day I was introduced to Narciso, an exciting romantic figure to the rebellious 18-year-old who had totally identified with the student uprisings of May 68, news of which had filtered into Spain. “Narciso is a philosophy student, politically minded, with a beard.” I wrote home. Narciso lived in a crumbling apartment in the old quarter. His walls are covered with posters of Che Guevara and Bertrand Russell. When we left, he said: “This house is yours.”
One day Narciso disappeared after a meeting. His sister tracked him down: to jail, where he spent several months. But I had my own concerns, like earning a living teaching English, which brought me into contact with yet another Spain. Cut to a palatial apartment on Valencia”s smartest street, where my private student Paquita lives with her family. Her father is a wealthy – and charming – businessman. Today, instead of English, we are having tea with the family priest – and in a flash I grasp Spain’s age-old radical anticlericalism and the expression “comer como un cura”. This priest is stuffing the pastitas de té and gulping down coñac, and the crumbs, and later cigar ash, settle on his enormous cassock-covered paunch. And – I can’t quite believe this – he is leering at me. Another day they invite me to lunch, after which Paqui and her sister sit down to do embroidery à la Jane Austen and wait for their novios formales to pay their formal visit. I suppose English is a real high-status accomplishment for a young woman.
Paquita is gentle and affectionate, has liquid, guileless brown eyes and is only a couple of years older than me. We feel an instinctive sympathy and struggle to be friends. The language is no problem: Paqui is a good docile student. It’s the culture gap. Paquita is unable, probably unwilling, to think about the freedom we enjoy elsewhere in Europe. She worries that I will be “taken advantage of”.
Indeed, the streets were not safe for lone women, foreign women, known generically as suecas. One night out we Brit girls were waylaid by a roistering gang of Spaniards fronted by – another flash – shock horror – Paquita’s novio. When Paquita gets married, virgen y mártir, she will have no rights. This is National Catholicism, the church is in charge, and there is no divorce and no contraception, although this family will surely have a gynaecologist friend who will be “persuaded” to prescribe the pill “for medical reasons”. There is no abortion, either, unless you know the ropes and have enough money to “go to London” another all-in package: return flight and abortion clinic… You could live very well indeed if you knew the ropes, had money, friends, enchufes. Most Spaniards, of course, didn”t.
For Semana Santa, 1969, we set out to hitchhike to Santiago de Compostela and see as much of Spain as we could on the way. Our male friends tried to dissuade us. “Two girls wandering round Spain alone? You”re crazy! It”s dangerous.”
“It’s true that there are lots of peasants in ragged trousers and blue shirts, battered straw hats, carrying their produce on donkeys and in little carts,” I wrote home. But like Doña Pura, F. and Paquita, everyone lavished the most stunning hospitality upon us. Almost without exception they went, literally, out of their way to show us their local beauty spots, monuments and heritage sites. They fed us and even paid for our pension rooms and shared with us their lonely 18-hour hauls in tanker trucks carrying thousands of litres of milk on the pot-holed two-lane highways through the rural misery of Franco’s Spain.
That’s why I came back. That”s why I stayed.
© Valerie Collins 2000
First published in The Reporter, November 2000