Portugal # 6: Anniversary

Anniversary                                        [Portugal # 6]

It wasn’t until Conrad and Margarita and Linda and I had staggered out into Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor last Friday night after dinner—thoroughly satisfying in both food and conversation—and glanced up at the clock just as the minute hand reached 12 with the hour hand firmly planted on 11, that I realized what a special moment it was. Not just 11 PM on 11/11/11, but almost 50 years to the day since I had made my first trip to Salamanca.

I spent 1961-62 studying in Madrid on a program run by NYU. It was meant to be my foreign fling before settling down to a career in law. Little did I suspect how completely it would change my life. September and early-October I dutifully attended classes until mid-afternoon and then went back to my program-arranged room with a widow and her grown sons in an apartment in sterile new Madrid. Late in October I moved out and took a room in a picaresque pension in a picturesque part of the old city (obviously fearing boredom more than alliteration). I got the room cheap because most of the pension’s boarders were working ladies who found it useful to have a male English speaker around. ‘Nuf said. By the middle of that month I had decided that I had had enough classwork, thank you, and would probably learn more if I cut some classes and stuck out my thumb on the highway. One of my first trips was to Salamanca.


How the city and I have both have changed! In those days Salamanca had maybe 40,000 inhabitants, a quarter of them students at Spain’s oldest and most prestigious university. Though the student population hasn’t grown much, the city has swelled to 160,00 people, most of them living in apartment blocks that surround the old historic core and spill out onto the flat Castilian countryside. The university has dropped a bit in the academic rankings, but its campus, built in the 16th-century by Spain’s best architects and sculptors when the country was at the peak of her power and wealth, will always be visually number one. By 1961, with Franco’s dictatorship shunned by most of the west and Spain economically third tier, much of Salamanca’s glorious architecture was well into decrepitude. Today much has been restored (on credit, of course – thus the European economic crisis) and the city gleams. Old is chic, and the modern bits stuck in here and there just add to the luster. On the Plateresque façade of the Renaissance cathedral, lurking among the diminutive figures intertwined with the stone foliage, is a tiny helmeted astronaut. Salamanca’s restaurants are smoke free (!!!), and at least one of them offers Turkish dönner kebab.

And me? A half-century leaves its marks even if it seems to have passed in only an instant. I came here in the early ‘60s, and now I am in my late 60s. Though I too have undergone some restoration (thanks again, Dan), I find that age is tolerable, not chic. The mirlos, the blackbirds that flock in the evenings in the poplar trees by the Roman bridge that crosses the Río Tormes, are still black; but the black beards are now white.

And Conrad’s is magnificent: thick, wiry, extending half way down his chest. You have to look at him twice to see that he is not a reincarnation of the great Spanish philosopher and Salamanca professor Miguel de Unamuno. Conrad (farm boy, Iowa) and Margarita (city girl, Puerto Rico), classmates of mine in the Spanish literature graduate program at Harvard, have become fixtures in Salamanca, where Conrad has become a (the?) reigning auth

ority on 18th- to early 20th-century Salamancan architecture, with a half-dozen books on the subject to his credit. They live here several months each year, and the rest of the time in Delaware, Ohio, where Conrad has taught at Ohio Wesleyan. Margarita, a successful textile designer, has become a maven about 16th-century Spanish sculpture, with a major book in the works. Then there is me, tiptoeing in the borderlands between anthropology and history, pilgrimage and Judaic studies. All of us long ago trained in literary criticism. Who’d have thunk it?

Conrad and Margarita are omniphiles, with wide-ranging interests, heads chock-full of fascinating trivia, idiosyncratic theories about how it all fits together, and a compulsion to share their knowledge and insights with anybody whose ear they succeed in grabbing. (“Well, look in the mirror, dear,” says Linda, without a trace of irony.) From dawn (10:00 AM, what Salamancans consider dawn), until well after dinner (people don’t rise from the table until 11:00 PM or so), Conrad and Margarita toured us through their Salamanca. Because Conrad’s research has been so publicly featured in the city (several books, frequent newspaper articles), because of his open manner, and the fact that he is … well, visually distinguishable from everybody else in Salamanca, we couldn’t walk a block without several people stopping him to talk about this or that and be introduced to his old college chum. We never got out of the city’s historic core—an area that an average walker could circumambulate in less than an hour—even though we saw only a tiny fraction of all it contains. Building by building, stone by stone, anecdote by salacious anecdote, Conrad took us back to his Salamanca that used to be. (“Remember the mirror,” says Linda.)

In the intervening years I’d been to Salamanca a few times, as tourist and as speaker at the university. But somehow the fact that this was a half-century return, in the company of people I had known in college and seen maybe once a decade since then, if that, took me back to the days of those early rambles when my eyes and ears were taking in new information, new sensations, as fast as they could, when I was driven by a voracious appetite for Spain and all things Spanish. (“And you have changed . . . how?” bemuses Linda.)

Driving up to Salamanca through Béjar and Barco de Ávila, driving back to Portugal through Ciudad Rodrigo, past herds of sheep grazing in the autumnal stubble of the vast wheatlands of Castile, past olive groves, red and yellow tinged vineyards, castle-topped hills, and neat stone villages grouped around a central church, some of that early ‘60s rush fills me again. Something in me refuses to recognize the high rise apartments that sprawl out from the villages into the countryside, or the four-lane divided highways

 (even when we sometimes drive on them) that bridge the winding, shoulderless roads that meander through rural Spain, or the power-generating windmills that line the crests of the hills and dwarf the human-scale landscape below them. Danny Goldberg, our Mexican film maker friend, pegged me right when he said that I walk in a world of used-to-be. 

Like Conrad. Like Linda too, but not so much. Or, I suspect, Margarita either. Among many other things, many other wonderful qualities that make us love them to pieces, they keep us from drifting off into the historic stratosphere like modern day Miniver Cheevys.

 We have hopes that Margarita and Conrad will come visit us in Kingston this summer. Another village with one foot in the 18th century and one in the 21st. And if not, we have promised that in another 50 years we will all meet in Salamanca and do the 16th century together again.

David & Linda