VIVA ESPAÑA –SPANISH INTERLUDE
It is the 14th July, 1949 and it is my twenty first birthday. My mother has given me a wrist watch, the first one I’ve ever had.
It is also the day on which Mair and I are traveling to Spain. We have left Waterloo Station to catch the ferry to Calais. We are both excited. This is my first trip abroad since I visited my pen friend in Lille; for Mair this is her first trip abroad ever. We arrive at the Gare du Nord early in the afternoon and from there we take a coach to the Gare d’Austerlitz. The coach takes us right through the centre of Paris.
It is a clear sunny day, with a cloudless blue sky. It is Bastille Day, the day on which the French people stormed the Bastille in 1789, and started the French revolution. The whole of Paris is en fête. There are crowds in the streets waving their tricolor flags, bands are playing, planes are flying overhead. Our coach takes us right through the centre of Paris. Mair and I are sitting with our noses glued to the window. People are smiling and waving at us - we wave back.
We are going down the Champs Elysees. I am thrilled by the long, broad avenue, lined with trees, with its tall buildings on either side. Everything is so different: the lamp posts, the street signs, the tables outside on the wide pavements.
Now we are crossing the Place de la Concorde; it is a huge, wide open space. The sun is sparkling on the fountains and there is a tall obelisk in the distance. In front of us we can see the Tuileries gardens, classically laid out with gravel paths and neat flower beds, and the Orangerie on the left. This was later to become an art gallery housing the last paintings by Monet of his garden at Givenchy. All these things we knew from reading about them and seeing photographs. Now we are seeing them for the first time.
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I fell in love with Paris on that day. For me this was my very best twenty first birthday present.
When we arrived at the Gare d’Austerlitz, we decided to buy some orange juice to quench our thirst. It was the most delicious juice we had ever tasted, with a real taste of oranges.
We had ‘couchettes’ on the train for our long overnight journey to Spain. Everything was new and exciting. Getting off the train at San Sebastian next day the heat and the smells hit us, pungent and sweet.
San Sebastian was a very elegant seaside resort for wealthy Spaniards, with a wide, curving sandy beach and promenade. The women, and especially the children, were beautifully dressed. The little girls wore several layers of flounced skirt, their hair in ringlets and their finger nails painted scarlet. The women, with their dark hair and flashing eyes, seemed exotic.
By contrast, when we had to travel on a bus, we were wedged in to a heaving mass of humanity: there were smells of cheap perfume mingled with garlic and body odours; stout women, old men with mustaches that pricked one’s chin, small children, pressed up against us. Very often there would be crates of farm animals, ducks quacking or the clucking of hens. The Spanish voices, particularly the women’s, were harsh and staccato, like the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. All this created a pulsating sense of energy.
I loved it all: the heat, the noise, the different smells, the colours. It was all so different from England, with its muted colours and restraint and lazy speech. I wrote long enthusiastic letters home to my mother. I came across one recently and its youthful exuberance made me smile.
We were lodged in a tall building on one of the dark, narrow side streets. The houses were all built around a rectangle, and were six or seven storeys high. We were on the fourth floor and we had to climb up the stairs to come out onto a corridor which ran right round the inner courtyard. Here again there was a sense of teeming life. There was washing hanging out on every balcony, pots of colourful flowers hung from the railings, and the smells of cooking permeated the whole area, strong smells of garlic and spices which we were not used to. There were old people sitting on the balconies, and music streaming forth from the interiors.
Mair and I kept grinning and exclaiming at each other in amusement and delight. We felt the Spaniards knew how to live!
One of the things that amused me the most was the ‘sereno’ or street guardian. The entry to every building was by a large studded, oak door which was always locked at night. If we arrived back after the door was locked we had to stand and clap our hands till the ‘sereno’ came, sometimes after several minutes. He would gravely unlock the door for us whilst we solemnly watched him.
“Buenos noches, señoritas”,
“Buenos noches, señor”.
We both loved this little ritual. Our ability to speak and understand Spanish was, by now, growing rapidly, and this new skill added to the fun of the whole course and living in Spain.
The weeks sped by. In the mornings we would have classes with our Professor; he was a charismatic and stimulating teacher. Mair and I were both too shy to talk to him, but we admired him from afar. In the afternoons we were free to go to the beach, swim and sunbathe, or explore the Spanish countryside.
On one of these occasions we had decided to visit a church on the outskirts of the city, and we decided to walk. We were soon both sweltering in the heat. This was the era of Franco and his troops, called the Falangists, were very much in evidence. Some of these soldiers came marching past, every head swiveling in our direction as they went by. Mair and I, red faced, looked straight ahead. The church, when we reached it, was mercifully cool and very simple, and we sat there for some time.
In the evenings we went out, sampled the Spanish food or went to concerts to listen to flamenco music and watch the Spanish dancing. We learnt about that mysterious word “duende’ which encapsulates the essence of flamenco: part ecstasy, part desperation. This seemed to fit in very well with my feelings at that time. I still love the music when I hear it now.
Mair and I got on well together. She was also on a scholarship and came from a small village in Wales. We were both about as “green” as each other, so we supported each other in our vulnerability. She was a sweet and gentle girl who sadly died quite young.
The five weeks were over and Mair and I returned to England and Wales. We would meet up in September for our final year at Liverpool.
Rag day at Liverpool