Lands of the Setting Sun: One Step Beyond

Furl the Gib

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.Yo-Ho-Yo-Ho...

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.

Yay Monkeys!

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.

BABY MONKEY

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.

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Lands of the Setting Sun: Getting Ready

Bella Hispania

Bill Bryson has never written about Spain, nor has David Sedaris. Michael Palin and Charley Boorman both went through Spain, but only a little bit around the edges. I was beginning to worry. I had planned this trip meticulously for months, and with only two days to go, I’d run out of ways to prepare.

In England didn’t need any book or travel show; the country was omnipresent in English-language media. And in Israel I’d been in a Birthright group with a guide. My impending journey into Spain seemed somehow lacking.

Months earlier, trapped on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I decided to read the Oxford University Press’ history of Spain. Somehow, they managed to turn the story of this country, the product of endless cultural invasions, wars, and political intrigue, and make it dryer than the winter rash that had developed just in time for the trip. My only option was to talk to my friend Sam Ettinger, who had spent a semester there.

“When you go, are you going to use an American or British accent?”

I ignored his bizarre conceit. “Why don’t I just speak Spanish?”

“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.”

“Remember that time I was on the bus in San Francisco, and that old racist lady sat next to me and went on a rant in Spanish about how the Mexican kids in front of us were shaming her ethnicity by acting black?”

“No.”

Actually, my Spanish was shaky. Despite growing up near towns where Spanish is the first language, taking five years of Spanish classes, and understanding the written language, I faltered embarrassingly when trying to hold a conversation. On the other hand, it seemed to be only Northern Mexican Spanish that gave me trouble; I chatted for hours with some Argentine girls in London who didn’t speak any English, so my luck in Spain was anyone’s guess.

“My point being,” Sam continued, “you don’t want them to think you’re English. They really don’t like the English right now, what with all the vomiting on the beach.”

I was well-acquainted with the English in Spain through television. Spain– Valencia and the Balearics in particular– is full of wintering British who hole up in their own community with no interest in the country around them, and queasy students yakking all over the place, berating the locals for not serving chips. It’s a problem. On the other hand, Spaniards love the Duke of Wellington and Joe Strummer, so I came out of the conversation having learned nothing about what English-speakers face in the country.

I’ve wanted to go to Spain since I was ten years old, and thought it might actually be the inspiration for Hyrule in the Legend of Zelda games– particularly Ocarina of Time, which has lots of Moorish and Islamic influences going on there. And because California was settled by the Spaniards so much later than the rest of Latin America, their influence was much more recent; the people of 18th century Los Angeles probably spoke with Castilian accents, but since the original Spanish-speaking community was effectively eradicated by the influx of Americans, we’ll probably never know.

In either case I planned meticulously. I was taking my mom; despite growing up in a Spanish-speaking region, she never learned the language well enough to speak in a foreign country, and there were some things I knew she would want to see, though I had no idea how much.

Compared to other European countries, Spain is huge; bigger than California, and not long and narrow like that state. Seeing the whole country would be impossible, but I decided on a few locations that were important to me: Barcelona, Madrid, and Córdoba. I also made arrangements to visit Gibraltar and Tangier nearby, and our plans included an overnight stop in London on the way back. All apologies to the Basque Country, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Granada. Next time, I promise.

To be continued…