“Is this the right spot?” my girlfriend said.
“Must be,” I said.
We were standing by a bike rack outside a Metro station, waiting for our Blablacar to pick us up. He was late. We were going to Cuenca for a day trip. Cuenca is a small town about an hour and a half’s drive from Madrid. Several of my students had recommended it, so on a weekend when we didn’t have anything else to do I impulsively booked a Blablacar to go there. We didn’t even have a way to get back.
“Estamos aquí,” I sent him through Whatsapp (the ubiquitous application for messaging here).
“Estoy llegando,” he said—“I’m arriving.”
This is a funny Spanish habit I’ve noticed. They’ll say they’re arriving when obviously they are not. Case in point: no car was to be seen on the street. But five minutes later, he did arrive and we hopped into the car.
He was a young man with curly hair and a scraggly beard. Call him Y.
“How are you guys?” he said.
“Good, how about you?”
“I’m great. Where are you from?” he asked, noticing our obvious accents.
“Oh, nice. I spent a year living in Los Angeles.”
“Really? How’d you like it?”
“It’s a weird place. Kind of horrible.”
“Yeah, we know.”
“All the people are so segregated. The black people, the Hispanics, the white people, nobody talks to each other.”
We stopped in front of a building where a young woman was waiting. It was Y’s girlfriend. Call her Z. She had straight hair and bright blue eyes.
“Hello!” she said as she got in.
“Where are you guys from?” she asked.
“New York,” Y said.
“Oh, cool! I spent two years in Washington D.C.”
“Ah, did you like it?”
We started off towards Cuenca. Both Y and Z were studying tourism and spoke English very well. My girlfriend and I did our best to keep the conversation in Spanish, but in general a group will always take the path of least resistance and speak the language easiest for everybody. In an hour or so we’d switched to English.
“So why did you choose Spain?” Y asked.
People tend to ask me this question a lot. Partly I think it’s a result of the strangely negative opinion many Spaniards have of their country. I never really know how to answer. Spain has everything going for it: it’s Europe, it has a good job market for English teachers, and it gave me the opportunity to learn Spanish. So I gave my usual response, which is:
“Why not? It’s a beautiful country.”
Meanwhile Z was rolling a cigarette for her boyfriend. Although I don’t smoke and I don’t recommend it, rolled cigarettes give me nostalgia because almost all my friends back home smoke and I’ve spent a lot of time watching the careful operation of making cigarettes. I like the way people gingerly sprinkle the tobacco into the thin, crinkly paper and then carefully lick it shut like an envelop, and I like the community in it because the person with the tobacco and the rolling papers inevitably ends up making the cigarettes for everybody involved.
It’s a shame smoking is so bad for you. One thing many non-smokers do not understand is the social aspect of smoking. Countless times I’ve watched my friend go up to strangers in New York and ask for a cigarette, and very often they give him one without hesitation. I find this incredible considering how expensive cigarettes are and how hostile people in New York normally are about talking to strangers. Imagine going up to a stranger who was chewing gum and asking for a piece. They’d tell you to eff off.
Anyway, we passed the time in small talk and eventually arrived at Cuenca. Y parked the car outside the tourist office and we all went in together.
“You see this building?” Y said as we walked in. “This is a summary of Spain. This whole big building, and it’s all empty except for one room.”
He was right. Most of the building looked abandoned. The entire first floor was empty. There was old, broken furniture scattered about and most of the walls were bare. A small paper sign directed us to walk up the stairs and there we found the tourist office.
Y and Z sat down and began talking with the office person. I tried to follow along but they spoke very fast and I only understood some words here and there. Ten minutes passed and then they started thanking the person and getting up. We began to walk out, both my girlfriend and I confused as to what happened. Then in the hallway Y and Z explained that they were going to visit some places outside of Cuenca.
“Want to come?” Y said.
“Oh, sure!” I said. “Where are we going?”
“It costs money to go to the Ciudad Encantada so I don’t think we’re going there.”
“Alright,” I said.
(The Ciudad Encantada, or Enchanted City, is an interesting rock formation near the city of Cuenca. But we didn’t see it so I can’t tell you any more about it.)
“First I think we should go to see the torcas.”
“What are torcas?”
“They’re like big holes in the ground. You’ll see.”
We got back in the car and started driving. Soon we were out of the city and on a small country rode. We passed fields and farms and then headed up into some hills. Soon we were surrounded by some pine trees and on our left was a collection of little cabins.
“That’s a summer camp,” Z explained to us. “I worked in a similar place when I was in Washington D.C.”
We kept going until we reached a parking lot and then got out. A path led into the forest and further up the hill.
Conversation turned, as it always does in these situations, to the differences between the U.S. and Spain. People are always interested to hear what foreigners think of their country.
“You know, one thing I’ve noticed,” I said, “is that people here are less paranoid.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for example people in the United States are really worried about sexual harassment. We could never greet each other by kissing, like the Spanish do, since for us all physical contact is sexual and dangerous.”
“Yeah, it’s true,” Z said. “When I was working at a summer camp in D.C. I had to follow all these rules and sign all these papers. We were never allowed to be alone with the kids.”
“That doesn’t exist in Spain?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Yeah, I don’t understand why we’re so paranoid. You’d think the richest and most well protected country in history would be able to stop worrying about being poor and getting attacked, but that’s all we ever think about.”
The first torca came into view. I can’t describe it other than saying it’s a giant depression in the ground. They were formed by ancient lakes, I believe, but now they are completely dry. The biggest ones are over 500 meters, or 1,600 feet, in diameter. I have to admit, however, that the view wasn’t very impressive. But I was enjoying walking around in the forest and talking with our new friends so it didn’t bother me one bit.
We walked and talked and in 45 minutes we got back to the parking lot. There we ran into a group of Spaniards who were laughing and talking.
“This is one thing I don’t like about the Spanish,” Y whispered to me. “They’re so loud.”
“Really?” I said. “I think Americans are louder.”
It’s funny how people think about their own culture. If somebody asked for my opinion about American culture, for example, I’d probably say nothing but insults. And yet if a non-American were to spend enough time insulting American culture, at some point it would probably upset me. I suppose everyone thinks that have the right to insult their own people, but that outsiders don’t.
We got back in the car and started driving to the Ventano del Diablo, a popular lookout point outside the city. We had to go down the hill with the torcas and then back up another big hill to get to it. By now I was getting kind of sick of sitting in the car. We’d spent about 2 hours driving so far and I have long legs and achy knees so sitting in cars is very uncomfortable for me. But the view was well worth it.
The lookout point was inside a hollowed out side of a cliff. From there you could see the impressive tan colored rock faces that surrounded you on all sides and a river with greenish water flowing down below. It was a dramatic sight, and reminded me of the cliffs of Ronda except for the vegetation. Here the only plants in sight were the stumpy pines that grew everywhere. You see, Cuenca is a high altitude city, 1,000 meters or over 3,000 feet above sea level, and thus big and broad-leafed trees don’t grow here. That also explained why it was so chilly.
We enjoyed the view for about twenty minutes and then decided that we’d finally go see the town. In fifteen minutes we’d arrived, parked, and split up. We would meet back at 9 pm. Y and Z kindly agreed to give us a ride back since we hadn’t arranged anything else and there weren’t any other Blablacars. They were good people.
Now it was only my girlfriend and me. We crossed over a little stream that separated the parking lot and started climbing up a steep road. We had to climb because the city center of Cuenca is even higher than the rest of the town, perched up on a rocky hill. I imagine this location was chosen for defense but that’s just a guess. In any case I felt winded by the time we made it up to the top, and added to that I was freezing. Both of us were hungry so we set off to look for the cathedral, because the good restaurants in any town are typically found near the cathedral. But we got distracted almost immediately by the view. From almost every side of the town there is an excellent view of the surrounding area, since it’s so high up. And because the town is squished onto a hill, with very uneven ground, the streets are charmingly narrow and twisting, and several times we had to climb staircases in the street.
Unfortunately I was hungry and needed to go to the bathroom and not in the mood to appreciate the city properly. But the winding streets were confusing and we ended up overshooting the cathedral and going to the other end of town (it’s extremely small) where there is a pretty steel bridge that connects the hill of the city center with another hill where a large church sits. From here we could also see the famous Casas Colgadas, or the Hanging Houses of Cuenca. These are buildings that are situated right on the edge of the cliff and which have balconies that hang off, giving them their name. It seems dangerous to me, but I suppose you have to use all the real estate you have when you’re building on the top of a hill.
We took some pictures, fended off a scam artist, and then went up to the cathedral to get food. I really wanted to eat inside because I was uncomfortably cold, but the best deals were for restaurants that had seats outside, so I decided to suck it up and sit down. We ordered sandwiches—and by the way, eating sandwiches is a very economical way to eat here because they are always big and cheap—and then had some coffee. It being Spain, the meal took over an hour; and by the end of it I was chilled to the bone.
The benefit of eating outside was that I got a chance to take a good look at the cathedral’s façade, which is particularly pretty. It is in the style of early gothic, and according to Wikipedia is the first gothic cathedral built in Spain. The front of the building has an impressively massive feeling due to its square shape, while avoiding any hint of being overbearing because of its relatively small size.
We paid the bill at the restaurant and then went inside the cathedral. In the entrance, a Spanish couple was making small talk with the ticket agent. They talked, and talked, and five minutes went by, and they seemed not to notice us patiently waiting. And then, instead of going into the cathedral the couple turned around and walked out. To me this experience sums up the difference between the United States and Spain.
We paid and went in. To my disappointment it wasn’t any warmer in there. I wandered around somewhat aimlessly. By then I’d seen so many cathedrals and so much religious art that I didn’t spend as much time scrutinizing everything as I did at first. But one thing made me pause. I went into one chapel where they was a statue of a monk standing over a demon, and in the dim light the demon’s eyes deemed to follow me as I walked past. A chill ran through me and I paused and examined the statue, but as soon as I stopped I saw that it was an optical illusion. Still the experience gave me the willies. And I think in that moment I may have recaptured some of the awe the unlettered peasants of the Middle Ages must have felt in this space. For people without skepticism and who weren’t over-stimulated by movies and smart phones the effect must have been overwhelming
I walked outside to the courtyard and there discovered that there was a kind of patio with a wonderful view of the countryside beyond. There was an air of ruin about the place. Broken statues and damaged rooms could be found in the cathedral. I didn’t feel any emotion in particular, however; I only felt cold. I don’t know what happened to me, but my ability to tolerate cold temperatures has been severely lessened since moving to Spain. In New York it’s often well below freezing while in Spain I’ve only experienced below-freezing weather once, but I’ve been much more bothered by the cold here than at home, maybe because I’ve lost weight or only because I’ve gotten used to warmer weather.
In any case, I was really cold. I’d spent over an hour eating outside and this cathedral wasn’t any warmer. I wanted to go somewhere with heat, if only for an hour. So I went to my girfriend and convinced her to pay a visit with me to the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art. This museum is actually in one of the Hanging Houses and is one of the top rated things to do in Cuenca, but I was mainly interested in the heat.
We left the cathedral and walked the short distance to the museum. It was free to enter and, most importantly, it was heated. The museum would have been perfect if there was any interesting art to look at. I know this will likely make me sound like a philistine but I have a lot of trouble appreciating “abstract” art of the twentieth century. To my eyes it simply isn’t visually interesting. And purely abstract art can certainly be interesting—take, for example, the elaborate designs of Moorish architecture, which is wholly abstract and also fascinating to look at. But most of these paintings were not simply abstract (as in, non-representational), but they were formless. I can’t distinctly remember a single work from the museum.
About eight hours had passed by now since we’d spent so much time in the car, time at the torcas, time at the lookout, time at the restaurant, and time at the museum. And I was tired. I wanted just to sit down at a café and read my book until it was time to go. I’d done enough walking. But my girlfriend wanted to see more. So against my protests she led me to a part of town that we had yet to visit.
We followed a road that led up to a more elevated part of the town. The sun was setting now and it was getting dark quickly. We kept going up, walking along narrow streets, until we got to the top of a hill. From here we could see the whole city center below us, the bridge, the valley, and the landscape beyond. In the distance the sun had just set behind the horizon, turning the skyline a bright red. The lights of the town were coming on, and in just a few minutes everything was twilight and the town was aglow with artificial light. On a large hill nearby there was a statue—a statue of Jesus, apparently, but I couldn’t see it clearly at the time—and now spotlights had been turned out and it glowed bright yellow against the darkness of the surrounding hill.
Behind us were several restaurants and I badly wanted to sit down, have a coffee, and read Anna Karenina, but my girlfriend wasn’t satisfied. So she led me back to another part of the center. We passed underneath a large stone gate, and found that we could actually climb up it. We went up the uneven stone steps and then an aluminum stairway and eventually reached the top. From there we could see the town and the hills, but because it was nighttime the view wasn’t so great. Still it was fun standing on that old gate, just the two of us, above everything around us.
We got our fill of it and then went back down to keep going into town. We reached a church—I can’t remember the name of it—and went inside. We’d gotten there just minutes before closing. The church was small and the only thing I have a definite memory of is a tableau of life-sized figures portraying the scene of Jesus being arrested in the garden. Saint Peter had just cut off the ear of the soldier, and Jesus, who was being kissed by Judas, had his hand raised to stop the apostle from attacking anyone else. But we really couldn’t stay for longer than three minutes because the man at the ticket booth started to lock up for the night.
We were thus back on the street just minutes after walking in. It was completely dark now and nothing would be open. So my girlfriend finally gave in and decided that we could go sit in a café until it was time to go back to the car. We walked back up to where the restaurants were and found a seat. Both of us ordered coffees, and as we waited for our drinks Y and Z walked into the restaurant. We said hello and they sat down next to us. They were hungry; they ordered croquettes and huevos rotos, two great Spanish dishes, and we began to talk. Talk turned to politics and they asked us about Donald Trump, as does everyone here—very understandably.
I did my best to try to explain the situation. I said that Donald Trump, although he is an odious person, was the first Republican in a long time to direct his campaign almost exclusively to low-income voters. Republican orthodoxy has for a long time been concerned mainly with de-regulation of the economy, cuts to the social safety net, and tax-cuts for the rich—things that benefit businessmen and the wealthy. And since Trump doesn’t talk about any of this stuff, but instead talks about the real economic stagnation among this low-income whites—although the reasons he gives for this stagnation, most notably immigration, are absurd and wrong—he’s getting ahead. I also tried to explain the general anti-establishment ethos and frustration with the status quo that is developing among the electorate, in no small part due to the inactivity of Congress. I tried to explain all this, also taking care to point out that I am highly biased (as is everyone when it comes to politics), and tried not to get carried away, which is hard when talking about Trump.
The conversation went on, they finished eating, and we went back to the car. Soon we were back on the highway. I felt really tired by now and I didn’t have much conversation in me. This seemed to be the case with everyone and so we drove on in silence, the only sound coming from Z’s music. I looked out the window and saw that the stars were magnificent here. I love seeing the stars. So rarely do I get a good glimpse at a properly starry night that when I do see them it fills me with awe and joy. I pressed my face against the cool glass and just looked at them and I tried to think about how enormously big the universe is and how small I am and I didn’t even come close but it was still wonderful.
We got back to Madrid at 11:30—over 14 hours after we left. It was a long day. We all said goodbye, and really I was sad to do so. The four of us had such a good time together and Y and Z were so nice to drive us around the area and to bring us back. We were lucky, and we are still.