A few days ago, I was entranced by the BBC’s revelation that there are now seven entrenched social classes in the UK, rather than the usual three, and just had to write about class in America.
First, a brief history: In the beginning, America was an overwhelmingly agrarian country, sparsely populated enough that even the poor could expect to live better than their European counterparts. The upper classes were politicians, writers, scientists, and all-around dilletantes, and the US Senate was in fact created as an American version of the House of Lords. There have been at least two class restructures in America: Once after the Civil War, when the gentleman farmers and dilettantes of yore were displaced at the top by captains of industry like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie; and once after World War II, when the GI bill made it possible for practically any young man to go to college free.
Since the war, and especially since the 1970s, we have begun to regress to an entrenched class system; most social mobility is downward as young people comprise a smaller portion of the population and find it harder to get a foot in the door, the cost of education has skyrocketed, and real wages have failed to increase over three decades.
So where are the aristocracy? You know, transatlantic-talking, stately home-living, senate seat-occupying, Groton and Ivy League-educated luvvies like we saw on Gilmore Girls? Where’s Giles Brandreth? They’re around, but only on the East Coast. It is said that in America, class is indistinguishable from wealth, but in the age of the internet that isn’t remotely true. Class in America is just as readily defined by cultural boundaries as Britain, possibly even to a greater extent: Because it’s so geographically spread out, America has never had a cohesive upper class. a huge section of them wouldn’t remotely qualify as “elite.” They mainly live on the west coast, possibly attend USC, winter in Miami, and have shit taste in music. These are the trashy rich. These are the Kardashians.
There have been many unintended consequences to the Great Recession: Wednesday night is the big night for social activity and not having a car is no longer completely insane, but most interesting is the division of economic class into more distinct cultural classes. Hipster vs. Douchebag, Rockefeller vs. Kardashian.
My grandparents didn’t go to college, my parents went later in life. I was the first one to be a freshman at 18, but there’s little hope that I will ever be able to live as well as my parents did. I’ve been applying for hundreds of jobs as a cashier, stock boy, whatever I can find, and in five years have never been accepted for a position. Having a bachelor’s degree could change those circumstances, but to what extent? But in now, suddenly, I’m still on a higher class level because I listen to Frankie Rose, watch Mad Men, and wear a tie.
Of course that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. I’ll be damned if my kids don’t go to Cambridge.
You’ve got to love Ibn Battouta. A Moorish explorer, he made it all the way to the Philippines, served briefly as a minister in the Maldives, and fought in the Battle of Gibraltar, spent the overwhelming majority of his life abroad, and when he wrote it all down, he made sure to let the reader know he wasn’t having any fun. The man abhorred any culture with topless women. On the other hand, he is on the 5dh coin.
Ibn Battouta Airport was on the windward side of the point of Cape Spartel, in howling wind, and accessible only by a dirt road, though that may soon change. Tangier was neglected under the bad king Hassan II, but it’s experiencing a revival under his son Mohammed VI. It’s still a messy place, but it’s also the fastest growing city on the African continent. This king is popular enough to have his picture in every room in the country, and every kiosk at Ibn Battouta.
First thing I did was get my mom some tea. As soon attendant at the cafe poured it, I picked up the paper cup, rapidly scalding my hand, but keeping my composure long enough to return to the counter and get a second cup for insulation. What I liked most about TNG (besides being one of the few remaining airports where you walk onto the tarmac) was the airline employees. All Moroccan, all pretty girls, all wearing djellabas, the traditional hooded robe of the Moors. We’d seen people wearing them around; it was a bit like seeing a Native American in full shaman gear walking down 42nd Street, except that here it was normal. I stopped in a tiny souvenir shop looking for a flag and they had it: giant, thick and woolen, a real flag like those getting shredded by the wind outside. You could have used it as a blanket. I ponyed up my last 40dh and packed it into my suitcase with the others.
Our flight plan resulted in a two-hour layover at Madrid Barajas, which was creepily identical to Heathrow, built in a style consisting mainly of glass and chrome which my mom likened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
“Would you be interested in watching all of Terry Gilliam’s films?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “there’s an insanity risk.”
I grabbed as much food as humanly possible from Medas, mostly ham, and devoured it as quickly as possible before queueing for the connecting flight. “So what are the differences between Castillian and South American Spanish?”
Annoyed by Britons who seem to think anything south of the Potomac is “South America,” I turned around to see a girl of about 15 travelling with her brother. “New World Spanish lacks distinción. There’s no th-sound, though that’s also the case in some parts of Spain.”
“That’s right,” she said approvingly. For the next two hours on the plane, I would catch her staring at me several seats ahead, then pretending she wasn’t, trying not to grin.
But now we were in England, and we had two hours to get to our hotel near Heathrow, catch a bus to the Picadilly Line, thence to the Northern Line, and get off at Camden Town. From there, we made a beeline for Regent’s Park, briefly got lost in some mud, and arrived at the Regent’s Canal. We barely made it, and not only because my mom couldn’t stop laughing at “Cockfosters.” I’d simply forgotten how huge London is.
I’d first heard about this restaurant from David Mitchell’s Back Story. Feng Shang Princess is a fancy Chinese restaurant on a double-decker canal boat, and though Mitchell walked by it all the time, he had never gone in. I was worried it would just be a novelty restaurant but the food was terrific. We were particularly taken by the crispy chicken in mango curry sauce. My mom decided that even though her birthday was in April, this would be my present. A £60 dinner at a restaurant on a boat, from a book, in London.
I never ate the chorizo. It got seized at customs in Los Angeles. You’re not allowed to bring ham in here.
The wind was blowing like crazy through the end of the Mediterranean, and it wouldn’t stop as long as we were there. As our hotel in La Línea was on the beach, the wind was full of sand and dust. And quite itchy. Clearly our final leg of the trip would be very different.
We took a longish cab to the ferry terminal at Algeciras. Though pronounced “al khethira,” it does in fact originate from Al Jazeera, the infamous news channel being watched on our boat. The language spoken here in the middle ages was Mozarabic, a Latin-derived language with bits of Arabic thrown in. The port of Algeciras was typically empty and threadbare, and the ferry took an extra thirty minutes to properly line up to the pier. I hadn’t ridden a ferry since going to scout camp on Catalina Island and I began to feel seasick for the first time in my life. I stared at the horizon to alleviate the feeling, but it turns out that makes it worse.
When we docked at Tanger-Med, it was raining. We grabbed our bags and rushed out, pulling out our passports but were stopped. We were supposed to get stamped on the ship. So we rushed back, waiting furtively for the customs officer to return before the ship returned to Spain. After a terrifying hour, he returned; a thin, professorial man in a long coat.
“I’m guessing you’ve never done this before,” he said. “It’s always someone.”
Ten minutes later we were relaxing at the snack kiosk. My mom had a mint tea, I had a coke. Clearly food was much cheaper here than in Europe. We were sitting on the African continent.
After a while, we boarded a shuttle to the terminal, changed my remaining 70 Euros for 770 Dirhams. Tanger-Med is shockingly far away from Tangier itself, and the only way to get to there is on an ancient beige Mercedes called a gránd-taxi. Having misread the Rick Steves guide, I was under the impression that gránd-taxis were overpriced and you could do better, but that was only in the city itself. Riding in the cab I got the distinct impression that the driver was taking the long way, but it turns out the fastest way is actually on a winding, terrifying coast road. This would turn into a theme.
We finally arrived at the Hotel Rembrandt, where apparently Tennessee Williams spent a year. It was already getting dark, and I wanted to get a taste of the Tangier before it shut down for sabbath. We walked down a street, to a series of stairways, along a castle wall, past the old Jewish cemetery and into the Medina. At one point I considered going down the Rue Khammal, a tiny little alleyway leading God knows where, but my mom wouldn’t have it. A man in a nearby doorway was giving her a foreboding look, and we went instead down the Rue de la Marine, quite hungry.
Immediately a petite man in a waiter’s uniform beckoned us into the nearest restaurant. It was a dark, dusky place where it turned out he was the only waiter. This was it, Tangier, the city of spies, the Arab world. In addition to a delicious meatball dish, my mom was having tea in a tiny glass! People were smoking indoors! I had a shawarma and a Coke. Dinner for two? 102dh. $10.
On the way back we briefly got lost. English is not generally taught as the second language, forcing me to rely on my failed-semester of French. “Ou est le Boulevard Mohammed V?” Eventually we found the hotel.
More than anything I wished we could’ve gone deeper into the country. Casablanca and Marrakech seemed a stone’s throw away, and Tangier was little more than the Moroccan version of Tijuana. I went out later in the night, hoping to find a Moroccan flag, but the shops were all shut. We had another big day coming: Camden Town beckoned.
I paced through Córdoba station uneasily. There were no high-speed trains where we were going. Only a slow, winding railway taking us through the Cordillera Antequerana to the southernmost part of Spain. Our journey took us off the electric rail system, past military bases and endless forests to arrive 20 minutes late at San Róque, which looked frighteningly like Orange County. From there we took a cab all the way to our hotel in La Línea de Concepción. We were going to Gibraltar.
Gibraltar is one of the Pillars of Hercules, two mountains on either side of the strait separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic, and as such, it’s been much fought over. The site of eighteen historical battles, it was finally captured by the British in Queen Anne’s War 309 years ago and it’s been theirs ever since. On the African side of the strait is the Spanish outpost of Ceuta, most famous in the 1970s for a surly border guard who wouldn’t let hippies into Morocco. But that’s a story for someone else to tell.
I wanted to go to Gibraltar because it was on our way, because it was going to be completely different from Spain, and because it afforded me the opportunity to cross an international border by foot, which never happens. The two-mile walk to the border was astonishingly ugly, the road along the beach dusty and unkempt, although the buildings were covered by flocks of giant shearwaters. Between Spain and Gibraltar is a no man’s land a hundred meters across. Naturally, this is where people park. When I passed through the border checkpoint, I excitedly held out my passport, but the guard didn’t even look up. It’s that kind of attitude that’s fostered Euroscepticism is Britain. From the checkpoint we walked across an airstrip, over a drawbridge and through a tunnel, and we were in the heart of Gibraltar.
For a place that’s so hard to get to, Gibraltar was totally packed, and packed with Britons. Suddenly everybody was paler, fatter, and the women were all wearing makeup. After being in Spain for so long, this was like home. Gibraltar is very proud of its pirate motif; the Gibraltarian pound coin has a skull on it! It’s the skull of a Neanderthal uncovered on the rock, but still! My mom and I had fish and chips– comfortably eating lunch outdoors for the first time in nearly a month. But we had business to attend to on top of the rock.
After procuring a Gibraltarian flag from a souvenir shop, we made the trek to the lift. Nobody shopped here, this is where people lived. The Gibraltarians truly became a people when the area came under threat from the Germans in the Second World War. The caves inside the Rock served as Allied headquarters for the invasion of North Africa, and when the war ended, there was a nation here. Most of the people we saw were from England, but the locals were immediately identifiable by their borderline-unintelligible Rosie Perez-by-way-of-South-London accents.
We weren’t expecting to see many monkeys. I mean, why would they show up for people? But monkeys are not like other wild animals; the moment we got off the lift, there was a monkey and her baby, looking through a poor man’s bag.
The place was full of monkeys just sitting around, not minding us at all. They were climbing all over the old bunkers, grooming each other, having sex and generally lazing about. After a while, it was time to go, and I had to pull my mom away. She was nearly crying.
The walk back was tortuous; we couldn’t catch a bus to save our lives. By the time we arrived in No Man’s Land, the two miles back to the hotel seemed impossible so we took a cab. My mom was exhausted, but I was composed enough to eat dinner in the hotel. However, I still didn’t have clean clothes, and it looked like I wouldn’t for the remainder of the trip.
In addition to being one of the oldest cities in Europe, Córdoba is also the hottest city in Europe. And while it wasn’t warm on New Years’ Day, it wasn’t cold enough to snow; it had rained early in the morning when we made way to La Mezquita, a block from our hotel.
La Mezquita was formerly the Great Mosque of Córdoba, with its striped arches and beautiful garden. We hung around there for a while, waiting to be let in. The inside of the building isn’t as big as it looks in pictures, and it’s still in use as a religious house. When the Castilians arrived, they built a cathedral inside it, so when you see it from the outside, one building appears to have grown out of the other like a parasitic wasp.
Inside the cathedral was quiet. Finally a priest showed up. My mom, who is not accustomed to seeing priests outside of movies, was enthralled. I was less enthralled by the prospect of being stuck there for an hour, so I convinced her to bail for lunch. As the bells rang for noon, we looked through the streets.
After searching for restaurants we found the kind of place where kings and presidents and prime ministers ate when they visited. Casually wondering really how often Tony Blair made it to this particular city, I noticed that one of the past visitors had been the current King of Morocco. He was a distant descendant of the Sultans and Emirs that would have ruled most of Spain and Portugal from this very city. I later discovered that the restaurant didn’t open until 13:30, so we got the hell out and ate somewhere else while planning the remainder of our trip. We were going to keep going south, beyond even Spain. And I still hadn’t done laundry.
Author’s note: Fellow Bosco alum Jake Hawkes is presently backpacking through Galicia. I didn’t go to Galicia, but we still salute him.
When the AVE arrived in Córdoba, we fell off the train– we’d come in much earlier than thought, and it hadn’t occurred to me that this train wouldn’t linger in the station very long. We ran right out to the taxi area.
“Hotel Albucasis, Calle Buen Pastor once,” I said to the driver, who may have been the same age as me. Thus began the most terrifying cab ride of my life.
Córdoba is old, it had already been around for centuries when the Romans arrived, and people have been living there ever since. Most of the city, still enclosed by a wall, consists of streets six feet wide with tight curves. The entire street we were on was barely wide enough for the taxi with no way of seeing in front of us, and the guy was driving at 40 miles an hour. But we reached our hotel. This was the Judería.
Córdoba has been a city as long as anyone can remember. The Carthaginians named it Kartuba after a general who was killed near by. The Romans came around in the 3rd century BC, where it was home to the father-and-son philosophers Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Younger. When the Visigoths captured Spain, the Byzantines briefly took it back, but eventually the Moors came and took care of business.
Córdoba under Islamic rule was the capital of Al Andalus and one of the largest cities in the world, much bigger than it is even today. We are told in history class that the Moors were a kind and gentle people who were eventually pushed out by the feckless papists. At least that’s what they said at Barnhart Middle School. In reality, Spain was always a mostly Christian country ruled over by a Muslim minority. Due to the country’s remoteness from the Arab world, it was a pretty lax place: the state of Al-Andalus broke up into several states ruled over by Emirs both Christian and Muslim until they were conquered by Islamic fanatics from Mauretania– the AQIM of its day– who antagonized the country’s impoverished Christian trading partners in the north enough to cause the Reconquista, the western front of the Crusades. Which brings us to La Judería.
For two hundred years, Córdoba was part of the Crown of Castile but still enjoyed religious freedom, and La Judería was the Jewish section during that time. It was a prosperous place with big houses, synagogues; it was Spain’s Upper West Side. It was also home to the Jewish philosopher Maimonedes, better known to me, and to fans of The Big Lebowski, as Rambam.
All of this, of course, was covered up and forgotten when the Spanish Inquisition came, but the Judería was rediscovered by local monks digging around in the 1870s and Spain today is quite proud of their Jewish history. Sam Ettinger told me that Spain was one of the most antisemitic countries in Europe, but I found no evidence of that whatsoever. My mom and I had lunch first, at an amazing Sephardic restaurant tucked away, as I recall, behind some bushes. I had chicken and rice and falafel. It was spectacular.
After that we visited the Jewish museum, really a restored medieval townhouse filled with whatever artifacts people found walled up in their homes or under their kitchen tiles. Because the streets are so narrow, houses in Córdoba are built with gardens on the inside like donut holes, and this one was spectacular. But I looked over at my mom and something had come over her. Something I’d never seen before. Some of my ancestors are from here; they escaped Spain to go to Odessa, which was then part of Turkey. That’s why I looked like these people. We were here.
I spent the afternoon desperately looking for a laundromat. I was out of clean clothes for the first time since Barcelona, but no place was open. I should mention it was New Years’ Eve. In Spain, people don’t come out to celebrate until after midnight, so the streets were dead as we searched for dinner. I settled for a kebab on the high street near the Plaza de las Tendillas, which was lit up with blue LEDs for the upcoming celebrations.
When midnight did come, the bells of La Mezquita rang like hell through the whole city. I was finally over jet-lag, but sadly not enough to go out any later.