Friday, April 9, 2010

Adiós España

We decided to return to the States by June, 1976. A number of factors led to this decision. We had no professional or economic futures in Spain and, since we were neither wealthy nor retired, we definitely needed those. Our daughter had already returned to California to live with her grandparents and go to high school. There were only the three of us and so long as we stayed in Spain, we were spinning our wheels. Ultimately, we were just tired of living overseas.

The decision to return presented its problems. We thought TWA really screwed us over when we flew to Spain. That was before we found out what they wanted for one-way air fare back.

We found that we could book a round trip tour from Málaga to London, stay in a hotel for overlooking the Serpentine for five days, jump the tour and not return to Málaga, take a another round trip tour from London to Los Angeles and jump that tour as well for hundreds of dollars less than three one-way tickets on TWA.

Someone introduced us to a British couple who wanted to retire to Spain, but were prevented by British law from bringing enough money to even start them out. This was way before Common Market days. They agreed to buy tickets for us on the Wily Coyote Tour Company when they returned to England using their British currency. We agreed to deposit the equivalent money in pesetas in an account in their names in Torremolinos. Does this sound like another version of the politician’s widow in Kenya?

When we were ready we shipped what we wanted and sold or gave away the rest, and got all of our money in cash from the bank in a wad of thousand peseta notes that would choke a camel. Then we set out for the airport with high hearts and open minds.

Before they would let us on the plane, a female customs agent pawed through Joanne’s purse and counted the money. Joanne forget every word of Spanish she ever knew, including some choice phrases learned on the grammar school playgrounds in East Los Angeles when she was a girl. Couldn’t even say, “mierde suave.”

Customs finally let us through because we apparently did not have too much money. We’ve never had that problem, by the way, and we didn’t even entertain the possibility before this aduanera began combing through Joanne’s purse.

We arrived in London and enjoyed our five-day stay, made all the sweeter by the knowledge that TWA wasn’t getting a dime of our money.

Our hotel had several interesting qualities. It sat on a five-sided block and I got lost the first time I tried to walk around it. You know, four right turns and you're back where you started?

In the past, I've usually been lost while Joanne almost always knew where we were. But not in London. This time our map was printed upside down and I knew where we were and she was lost.

The hotel didn’t have a safe with a lock but we were welcome to put our camel choking wad of pesetas in an envelope and they would be glad to keep them for us in their office. No thanks.

Nobody in the hotel drank water with their dinner. Until Joanne. Our waiter became huffy. “If Madame insists.” Madame insisted and the waiter went off in a royal snit.

We left London from Gatwick, not Heathrow. Gatwick lies to the south of London, twenty-eight miles to the south. Our driver, a man from some Southeast Asian nation, spoke English well enough to understand “Gatwick,” but not well enough to tell us it was twenty-eight miles away. The longer he drove, the more nervous we got. We thought he intended to drive us to Los Angeles.

We arrived at Gatwick safely enough and presented ourselves to the Wily Coyote reception desk where we were informed they had never heard of us. It was an emotional moment. Fortunately, we had some evidence that we had paid cash in advance and eventually they found our names somewhere.

They then checked our luggage in and told us to relax because our be departure would be temporarily delayed until they found an airplane. I began to think more kindly of TWA. They may have ripped us off in big jagged pieces, but at least they had airplanes. Then I realized that Coyote Air had thoughtfully provided me with entertainment for the morning. I could watch peoples’ faces when they were informed, after their luggage was checked in, that we would all leave as soon as someone found an empty plane.

Morning jollies came to an end when we were all herded into a bus and driven to a hotel lobby. “Cool,” I thought. “Maybe we’re going to stay in this hotel until they find a plane. Maybe tomorrow.”

No such luck. Coyote Air found a plane. But we had an interesting few hours in the lobby nonetheless. Joanne and I strolled about and came to the swimming pool where British Overseas Airlines (BOAC) happened to be holding an evacuation drill for a class of stewardesses. In these modern times “stewardess” is a political incorrect term. Everybody’s a steward now. But these stewards were all good looking young females in bikinis.

Joanne and I watched as the young women climbed up a ladder and slid down a slide into the water. When they reached the water they were to stand up and help the next person off the slide. They were practicing dry land evacuation and were just using the pool for comfort's sake. At the time England was in mid-drought condition (it hadn’t rained anywhere in two weeks) and it was in the mid-nineties that day.

All was proceeding well. The young women were having fun and Joanne and I enjoyed watching them. Then one of them broke a fingernail and fainted. Her mates had to fish her out of the water to keep her from drowning. We hoped we never got into trouble on that girl's flight.

It was hot and dry that day, totally unBritainlike. To the undoing of one young Brit, the hotel bar was open. Thinking that he might not have any alcohol before he got to Los Angeles, he partook liberally and then decided to remove his shirt and take a nap in the sun. His milky white torso turned fiery red. When he came to, he was too drunk to realize that he was going to fly from England to Los Angeles with moderate first degree burns over a major part of his body.

He’s undoubtedly middle-aged and arthritic by now but behaves better in public. If he has survived.

The plane was actually nice. Plenty of room. And that lasted all the way to Shannon Airport in Ireland. That’s when a second tour group got on. Large people they were, filling and overflowing the seats. Moving about became impossible. For all purposes, we were a flying cattle car.

Onward we proceeded to Los Angeles. Normally we would have gone by way of New York. But these were not normal times. The Canadian air controllers were on strike and we couldn’t fly over Canadian air space. So we had to land at Hartford, Connecticut. Huh?

My geography of anything east of the Mississippi will never win me big bucks on a quiz show, but if we could get to Hartford, why not New York?

No matter. We landed at Hartford and confronted customs. The B team. Either they were either trainees or had insulted somebody’s wife at the office Christmas party, but these guys were not top drawer. One agent was really suspicious of our cameras, lenses, some items we’d picked up elsewhere. He wasn’t reassured when Joanne presented receipts from Hong Kong, Morocco, Guam, etc. But having these items and receipts wasn’t illegal, and he had to let us through. But he didn’t have to like it.

We reboarded our plane finally landed at LAX, but at a freight depot a mile from where our family waited for us. As luck would have it, it was in the middle of the night and cell phones had not yet been invented. Our joints were swollen because we hadn’t been able to move, but we were so glad to be on the ground that even the smog smelled good. Great to be home, even if it’s LAX.

And off we went to whatever destination our own incompetence might lead us.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Canadian Flying Wedge

Joanne went next door one morning with McConnell’s morning cup of coffee and found five young strangers asleep in his living room, two men, three women. He didn’t really know who they were. He’d only met them the night before in downtown Málaga. I got to know these young people a little, and they really had a great story. It would be a wonderful novel. If only I were a wonderful novelist.

The most serious minded of the young people seemed to be a young Canadian named Elmer. He called himself Rem. Why Rem? When he was in the 8th grade people began spelling and pronouncing their names backwards. Elmer became Remle and Remle became Rem. His mother hated it. All the more reason for keeping it. Rem was engaged to be married but his fiancé decided that it would be better to not go through with it. So Rem decided to treat himself, his sister, and a good friend, to a backpack trip through Europe using money he’d saved up for his honeymoon trip.

The three young Canadians found themselves in Málaga when a cruise ship docked. They went aboard for an evening of vino and dancing. There they met two young women, English and Irish, who had signed on with the cruise ship as dancers. Once aboard, their passports were taken from them for “safekeeping.” In the meantime, in addition to their regular dancing duties, “other services” were sometimes requested. Rem and his party were outraged and readily agreed to help the girls escape.

The ship’s purser returned the passports whenever the ship docked because the girls needed them for customs inspection. This time, however, things were going to be different. After the girls had their passports and had been cleared by customs, Rem, his sister and his friend formed a flying wedge of righteous Canadians, put the girls behind them, and barged their way onto shore through surprised passengers, crew and customs people.

Once away and fairly safe from pursuing pimps, who didn’t really want to catch them and find themselves explaining things to the guardia, our young band of refugees found themselves in the middle of the night in the dockside area of a strange Spanish city wondering what to do. Even if there had been someone to talk to, they spoke no Spanish. They didn’t know anyone in town. They didn’t know where the consulate was. Of if there was a consulate. It was a typical young person’s plan.

Fortunately for them, along came McConnell. On his motorcycle. He agreed to take them to his home. I have no idea how many trips this took.

They were really neat kids. I distinctly remember their story because when I heard it I felt old for the first time in my life. Look at it this way. I would have notified the authorities who would have assured me that things would be investigated and everything would be under control. On the whole, I think the Canadian flying wedge was the better answer.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Visitors from Ohio

In early 1975 our daughter Pat went downtown on some errand of her own and returned with four people from Ohio, three men and a woman in their sixties or seventies and one man in his early nineties who tried to keep it a secret because he didn’t want people treating him like an old man. They had arrived in Torremolinos on an AARP tour and were gee whizzing around town when Pat found them. She decided they were lonely and brought them home to meet us

We invited them in, “put the kettle on,” and talked a bit about their visit and agreed to meet later on in the week for lunch. We enjoyed their company, went to a few places, played some bridge with them. We even had a bridge party at our house one night. Besides our visitors from Ohio, our neighbor McConnell brought over some Irish friends, and we had a lady from South Africa, an English man and a woman from Texas. (I’ve always looked at Texas as it’s own country, possibly its own world.)

One afternoon our Ohio acquaintances gave us a letter that had been put into their mail box at the hotel where their apartment was. They returned it to the desk and explained in their best Spanglish that the letter was not meant for them. The clerk accepted the letter but the next day it was in their mail box again. When it appeared in their mail box for a third day, they wondered if we were the intended recipients. They then reasoned that if the letter was ever going to stop appearing in their mail box, they would have to deliver it themselves.

They thought that the whole affair was simply a little strange. However, we took it to be a message from someone in the government, perhaps the guardia, to let us know that they were keeping an eye on us. It made sense in its own strange way. We were living in Spain during the last year of Francisco Franco’s reign and the first year of Juan Carlos’. Franco took over reins of government after the Spanish Civil War and, since he was a fascist, running a strong Theory X organization seemed an imminently reasonable thing to do. Heavy handed government from the top down. With laws to enable such a government.

It was, for instance, illegal to have more than five people who were not members of your immediate family in your house at any one time. This was his way of nipping insurrection in the bud. Technically, our bridge party was illegal. We had broken the law. They weren’t going to do anything about it, but they wanted us to know that they were “on” to us. We weren’t Spaniards.

That was life in Spain for the foreign resident. There was no way a person could live in Spain and obey every law. They could always get you for something. But so long as you kept the money coming in regularly, they were willing to overlook any minor illegalities.

Of course, that’s only our theory. Maybe the post office was just confused.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ventorilla La Perra

As we wound down our time in Spain in the Spring of 1976, one of our last official acts was to throw an anniversary party for ourselves. It was our twentieth anniversary. In the States we had entertained by inviting other people into our homes. In Guam extended families either attended fiestas or gave them. But in Spain the custom was to invite each other out to restaurants.

For example, we knew of a fish place in The Calvario, a village sparated from Torremolinos by a protrusion of land that swept into the Med. The little fish place had no menu because they didn’t know what was going to be caught that day. Each time we ate there, we’d have to go through a little ritual.

“Hay calamari?” (Squid)

“No, no hay calamari?”

“Hay boquerones?” (Deep fat fried fingerling fish, eaten bones and all. Full of transfats. Yum.)

And so we would proceed through the same litany every time we went there. But we could always depend on fresh fish, salad, bread and wine for about $2.00 a head.

Our multlilingual neighbor, Claude deBretteville, always solved most of our problems, whether it came to procuring entry stamps for passports, finding a hotel room during Romería, or, in this case, finding a suitable restaurant for our party. She found a very small restaurant on the outskirts of town that had been used as a stage coach house in the early 17th century and had stayed in constant operation since. Ventorilla La Perra.

The restaurant was small but had an ambiance a Stateside business would kill for. It was actually built 300 years ago, not two years ago and made to look old. White stucco exterior, tile floors, wrought iron. Our 22 guests dined outdoors that evening on paella, salad, and bread. The paella contained shellfish, lobster, fresh asparagus. Gourmet magazine could have featured this dish. We also had an open bar. Our guests could have as much beer, wine or soft drinks as they wanted. I suppose tea and coffee as well.

It was a wonderful party. To employ the old cliché, a good time was had by all. I especially had a good time when I got the check. It was about $80 U.S., generous tip included. And we didn’t even have to clean up. We just went home. Now that’s the way to celebrate an anniversary.