BLACKHAWK

From A Patchwork Memoir:

Earl and I are bound for Blackhawk in his red MG, the very same car and the very same route we took when I was seventeen. Actually, he has two MGs and goes to all the “Noggin and Natter” MG Club meetings held at various Bay Area pubs, as well as rallies, which are like treasure hunts with no treasure, only a secret destination that you find your way to by clues.

“Did you bring the spritzer?“ I ask anxiously. “It looks like a scorcher.” It gets so uncomfortable in the MG on a hot day, what with all the heat coming off the gear box, that the last time I spritzed a quart of water all over my face and clothes, drenching myself to keep cool. Going any distance with me and my back problem is a major production, so Earl always brings a small ice chest with two ice packs, as well as a special car cushion.

The mall is even prettier than I remember it. At one end is a modern fountain with tiered, round water tables, the runoff spilling under a bridge into a little lake that meanders between the shops and restaurants. It’s bordered by boulders, wild grass, and cattail reeds, and stocked with yellow and gold-spotted carp.

The Behring Museum is two stories, the black marble floors so shiny you can see almost as much detail in the gleaming reflections under your feet as you can in the antique cars all around you. There’s a 1926 Daimler made of German silver—so heavy they have trouble keeping the air in the tires, Earl instructs me. It was owned by a maharaja and has panes of smoked glass to hide his wives, an exterior wicker seat for the servant, and elaborate boa constrictor horns on each side. There are several Duesenbergs, including Clark Gable’s convertible coupe—they gave rise to the expression “It’s a duesy,” Earl explains. Also a 1931 Bugatti Royale made of thousands of small blocks of wood. What strikes me as funny about some of the earliest cars is that they’re conceptually incongruous—the cabs have the flowing lines of horse-drawn coaches, while the “business” ends look boxily like traveling chests.

One showstopper is rainbow-striped. “I wonder if that’s the original color,” muses Earl. “The cars I remember from my childhood were dark and somber. Henry Ford always said his customer could have any color they wanted, as long as it was black.”

I remark on the fact that many of the cars have TWO spare tires. Tire technology wasn’t all that advanced in those days, he tells me—and his family invariably had a flat on the way to Cape Cod every summer.

He explains to me about disk wheels versus spoke wheels that have to be tuned for tension and points out “artillery” wheels, which got their name because they have wooden spokes like cannon caissons.

Later we sit at the other end of the lake at a table with white linen under a canvas umbrella. A female mallard is snoozing on a boulder just beyond our table. When the waitress brings the bread, the duck rouses herself suddenly. Joined by her mate, they peer expectantly over the edge of the table at us, as irresistible as begging dogs at the family dinner table.

“Did I ever tell you about my Dad’s feud with our neighbor, Jack Landis?” I ask Earl, who shakes his head. I know I probably have, so I’m glad he’s almost as forgetful as I am (though he has the excuse of age) and I get to tell my stories more than once without having to worry about being a bore.

“When I went to Minnesota for my high school reunion,” I say, “My dad and I went back to see the old Dudley house together. He reminisced about how he’d bought me a duckling and built a small cage for it out of wood and chicken wire. The cage was just a little 12” box, so, as the duck grew, there was hardly room for it to turn around. Our neighbor, Jack Landis, told my dad it was cruel to keep a duck in such a small space, so my dad called the University Farm Campus and asked someone over there their opinion; he was assured it wasn’t inhumane, he claimed. He told me all this bitterly, still as angry at Jack as if it had happened yesterday.”

Besides believing animals couldn’t “know” anything, I remind myself, my father didn’t believe they had any feelings either—and I realize that in some way I’ve always identified with my duckling, as though my father built a cage for me, too, that I remained imprisoned in for many years.

DEMISE

The year I traveled and lived abroad, I got a serious throat infection every time I underwent a dramatic climate change—in Canada, then Spain, then England. In Spain I realized I was coming down with tonsillitis one day when I swallowed and felt a twinge in the exact location I knew my left tonsil to be. Rosi, the senora of the residencia, took me to the doctor in a cab. When he asked me if I had a fever and I said not that I knew of, he smiled at me with indulgent condescension, he was so sure I’d misdiagnosed myself. After he examined my throat, however, he looked both startled and sheepish to discover I DID have a spot of pus on my tonsil.

After the school year ended, Dale and I hitchhiked to England to meet up with Britte, the three of us planning to travel around Europe together. In the wee hours of the morning in a hostel on the outskirts of Stratford-on-Avon, I realized I was coming down with yet another throat infection—and by dawn I was running a high fever. I asked the director if I could spend the day in bed, but she said no, they closed down during the day. So Britte and Dale left me off in the lobby of a hotel and went to look around the town. By the time they came back for me I was so racked with fever I started “convulsing” when I tried to walk across the street—my teeth grinding and muscles seizing. They installed me in a room in a cheaper hotel and went out sightseeing for the day. I was so out of it that it didn’t occur to me to ask to see a doctor; all I wanted was to curl up in a ball, instinctively, like a sick animal in its lair. Britte and Dale brought me food in the evening, then went back to the hostel, leaving me alone and untended during the night.

In the morning when they came by, Britte said she’d gotten the name of a clinic to take me to. I thought my fever had broken because I no longer felt hot but told her I felt so weak I wasn’t sure I could get up. When she acted annoyed, I forced myself—but as I tried to walk down the stairs, I was gripped by a sudden panic and realized I was about to pass out; I had to put my head between my legs until my head cleared. At the clinic they told Britte my temperature was 103 degrees and scolded her for getting me out of bed to bring me to a place where they couldn’t treat me; they said I had to see a private doctor. (If my fever was 103 when I didn’t even feel hot, what had it been the day before? I wondered.) I remember going to the doctor alone later that day and asking him to please give me a SHOT.

For the next few days, Britte and Dale left me to convalesce by myself, bringing me food occasionally. Remembering how Britte had taken care of me the previous summer, I felt so abandoned that, still running a temperature, I bought a loaf of nut bread at a little grocery and went and sat by the river in the rain, where I sobbed without restraint. But I was so ashamed of my “infirmity” and worried about being a burden that I didn’t complain. One evening I said I felt well enough to go out for an hour or two, but Britte told me she and Dale had standing-room-only tickets to a play and insisted it would be too arduous for me. The next day I said I thought I could manage an afternoon outing, but she told me they’d planned something for the whole day.

Britte had acted cold towards me from the moment Dale and I met her at the airport—not the reception I was expecting. I wondered then if she was angry at me because I’d fallen off writing letters home in the previous month or two—as my time in Spain drew to a close, I’d wanted to make the most of every moment. My affection for her was as deep as ever, but I’d figured we’d be together soon and have plenty of time to enjoy each other’s company in the future, sharing the apartment she’d recently rented in a brown-shingle duplex near the high school. Or could she be jealous of my relationship with Pete? I wondered.

Whatever the case, it seemed clear to me throughout my illness (which lasted only four days, thanks to the antibiotics) that Britte was captivated by Dale, that she was busy “courting” her, and I was an encumbrance. In Athens Dale met a man she went off sightseeing with, leaving Britte and me behind. Over coffee in an outdoor restaurant, I told Britte what I’d been feeling—that she no longer cared for me, that she seemed completely preoccupied with Dale. I waited for a response, but she didn’t have anything to say.

In subsequent weeks, I couldn’t forget how completely I’d allowed myself to trust her the previous summer. I’d been so sure of our friendship then I hadn’t doubted that we’d be together at one or the other’s deathbed. Actually, I was so stunned by what felt like a betrayal that I couldn’t entirely take it in. And once again, despite my wonderful, liberating year in Spain, I began to sink inexorably into depression.

Though Britte wouldn’t share her feelings with me—she never had until that morning at Jim’s in New York—I tried to trust that things would get better between us. Ten months had passed, I’d changed—I thought maybe it was just a matter of catching up, making adjustments. What her reasons were I won’t try to guess, but we became roommates as we’d planned. Maybe our relationship had gathered so much momentum over the previous four years that neither of us was able to abruptly change course.

I remember strolling on campus one day and feeling numbed by the impersonality of it all—the fact that everyone was walking around in their own world, that people didn’t meet each other’s eye, smile, acknowledge each other, that there was no human contact or connection.

I dreaded going back to school again and decided to postpone it. I borrowed Will Durant’s History of Civilization from my uncle, instead, and started reading, but as my depression deepened, the excitement I’d felt about learning in Spain subsided, until one day I closed the book and never opened it again.

Looking back on it, I know my depression had to do with the staggering losses I was experiencing: the loss of a place I’d loved and felt deeply attached to, of the people there—my Spanish and American friends—of a way of life that had allowed me to bloom, and, most of all, of the feeling that I was loved and cherished by Britte that had been the foundation for it all.

I called the student hospital, hoping to resume therapy with Dr. Camarer, but was told he no longer worked there. When I mentioned this to Britte, she exclaimed, “You didn’t know? He jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge!”—which left me dumfounded. I remembered how I’d intended to write him in Spain—to thank him for his help and tell him how happy I was. I even found myself wondering if that would have made a difference…if I could have saved his life.

For the first couple of months back in Berkeley, I had trouble functioning, so I was relieved when I found my energy returning and was able to do more. But my improvement didn’t improve my relationship with Britte. One day she yelled at me that she’d given me everything and sometimes she didn’t think I was worth it. It was all I could do to hang in there, trying to hold on to the faith that this was merely a difficult passage and we’d come through it. Then one day she exploded, smashing a glass table top and screaming that she felt like killing someone. I was so frightened by her behavior that I moved out—and I took refuge briefly in my mother’s house, since I didn’t know where else to go.

Her outburst marked the end of our friendship; she went into therapy briefly with a colleague of my mother’s, and on the few occasions I talked to her after this, she was hostile and distant. At the end of the school year a few months later, she went to Germany, where she would live for a number of years. So it was a very long time before I learned what the demise of our friendship was really all about. Though Britte could imagine that she’d given me “everything,” she continued to deny me the one and only thing that would have made all the difference: the truth.

GOMAS

The University of Madrid was in political turmoil that year—there were frequent student demonstrations and violent confrontations with the “Guardia Civil,” the state police. (We called them “grises”—“gray men”—for their gray uniforms.) When there was liable to be trouble, Gay, at the Education Abroad Office, would call all sixty of us in the program, warning us not to attend classes that day. We risked jail if we were anywhere in the vicinity—police trucks would drive around and spray “protesters” with paint to mark them for arrest. One day Gay didn’t reach me in time. I took my two metros and bus to campus, but as I got off amid a crush of students, I saw a line of Guardia Civil on horseback at the far end of a field. Frantically I scrambled back onto the bus a moment before the doors closed—and watched the grises charge down the field, descending on the students and beating them savagely with “gomas” (rubber clubs), until the melee was right underneath my window—frightened horses rearing, clubs swinging, students screaming as they were thrown against the bus or clawed at the doors.

Some time after this incident, all classes were suspended, and we U. C. students were given a choice—to leave Madrid or stay—because if the university remained closed, the boys in our program could lose their credits for the year and risked being drafted for the war in Vietnam.

My friends and I, including Ella, Dale, and Pete, chose to stay.

 

ROOTS

The Spanish people were generous and hospitable in a way that astonished someone raised with a Yankee sensibility like I was, with an emphasis on self-reliance and habits like thrift and prudence. When a Spaniard picked up a few of us American hitchhikers, he would treat us all to a meal at a café in the next town we stopped at, whatever his financial circumstances. Because the Spanish sensibility was, as I perceived it, steeped in a sense of community, people weren’t constrained in the way many Americans tend to be; they didn’t worry about the future the way we do in our culture, trusting in the shared ethos that we are all our brothers’ keepers.

By the end of the year, my love of Spain and sense of belonging, like a root system, had grown so broad and deep, I began to consider the possibility of making a life there as an ex-patriot after I graduated from college. I felt for the first time that I understood the wish of the farmer who wanted to be buried under the old oak he’d climbed as a child—because I felt I wanted to be buried in Spain.

PETE

In Paris, after our landing in Le Havre the previous summer, I’d swung through the rainy streets with a boy from our program named Pete—on our way to buy him an umbrella. He was an economics major—handsome and outgoing, with an amiable charm. From time to time during the year we found ourselves together, and I would get my hopes up that it was the beginning of something, but he would always back off.

“At the party Pete told me about the book The Games People Play and we went to the kitchen to try our hand at tortillas, but there weren’t any eggs in the fridge. ‘Por fin y al cabo’ we ate at the university cafeteria and went walking through a park—the grass was wet, the night balmy. There were shadowy figures on benches, low murmurs. Pete carried me over a hedge. I was amazed at how easily he lifted me up. I said one or two things that made him laugh—like pointing out the constellation Orion with his three belly buttons. But it wouldn’t have been necessary to talk at all if he had held my hand. Debbie and Bruce were walking hand-in-hand. His aloofness began to bother me, and I started to tense up. The walk home was uncomfortable, the lack of physical contact so unnatural I think it upset us both. The evening just fell off; he clapped for the sereno, said ‘Adios!’—that was it. I wondered if he would ever ask me out again. I thought he wouldn’t, and I swore to protect my feelings no matter what happened.”

Then, on a trip with some girlfriends, we missed the train back to Madrid and disagreed about what to do. While two stayed behind to wait for the next train, two of us went to the outskirts of town to hitch a ride. There on the shoulder of the road was Pete with a male friend. He and I hitchhiked together that afternoon and shared a room in a pension that night. And although nothing happened, the intimacy of the situation caused something in our friendship to shift.

I found out from Wendy, who was dating a friend of Pete’s, that he had a girlfriend back in the States, which I realized had been the obstacle all along. That spring we hitchhiked to Portugal together. He was great fun to travel with—being ingratiating enough for the TWO of us—and people responded with warmth wherever we went. He didn’t speak any more Portuguese than I did, but had no inhibition about speaking Spanish and changing just the endings of words to approximate Portuguese.

One afternoon we found ourselves on the wrong bus, so the driver let us off along a country road, directing us across a valley to a distant road somewhere on the other side. We waded through a field of wildflowers that streamed up and over the steep hills to either side, the two of us getting giddier and more intoxicated with the natural beauty as we went. We wanted to touch each other but were too shy, so we horsed around instead, frolicked and chased each other until we finally collapsed, exhausted, on the ground. Beneath the flowers, mint was growing everywhere, and when Pete finally kissed me, his hair, his clothes, everything smelled of mint.

LECHEROUS HAND

Rome wasn’t the only place I was anonymously harassed. One day in Madrid I found myself waiting for the subway at rush hour. As the doors of the train opened, I was swept into the car by the surge of the crowd—and someone pulled up my dress the moment before I got hemmed inside. When the train started, my skirt was bunched up around my waist—my panties, nylons, and garter belt exposed (this was the year before we started wearing pantyhose)—and I felt a lecherous hand squeezing my thigh. Not knowing what else to do, I wormed my own hand down and grasped it tight so it couldn’t stray any further, while I peered into the impassive faces around me, trying to figure out who it belonged to. When I found I couldn’t, I hurled myself at the exit at the very next stop and made my escape, even though I was still many stops away from my own.

FLUENT

At first I was too shy and insecure to speak much Spanish, afraid of making mistakes. I’d had three years less Spanish than the other students in my program, since I’d started out in French in junior high, and I continued to have to struggle to understand and keep up.

But in the spring of that year, a strange thing happened. I’d become so facile at conjugating verbs from tables in my head and to referring, mentally, to the other diagrams and charts I’d memorized that I sounded—almost—fluent. Then, quite suddenly, all my “props” fell away—I couldn’t remember these schemata, and I found myself floundering in a sea of panic and confusion. This lasted only a few weeks, until one morning I woke up fluent. I could talk and think—I even began to dream—in Spanish. But the change wasn’t just a matter of verbal proficiency. With mastery, I underwent a more profound transformation from the anxious, reticent young woman I’d been to a voluble, extroverted “Latina.” An alter ego emerged who actually enjoyed being the center of attention. I’m afraid you could hardly shut me up.

Looking back, I think one of the things that freed me was finding in the Spanish language a refuge from my father, a place he couldn’t follow me—criticize or mock me. Rather than the unsympathetic audience I’d had in him, I found a sympathetic one. The Spanish people couldn’t have been more pleased and enthusiastic about anyone’s efforts to speak their language. Soon they were asking me what Latin country I came from, assuming I was a native Spanish speaker, though they couldn’t quite place my accent. (My accent, curiously, WASN’T quite like anyone else’s—and it wasn’t until many years later when I met a woman from the Canary Islands that I finally heard an accent like my own.)

 

PRUNED

Like most Americans, I started out wildly frustrated with what I saw as the inefficiency and backwardness of the Spanish bureaucracy—you’d go to pick up a package at the post office and you’d have to wait for hours in line. I felt hampered, obstructed, thwarted at every turn…until it finally became clear to me that it was impossible, in Spain, to go about your business—your life—in a purposeful manner, to be goal-oriented, because sooner or later you’d drop dead in an apoplectic fit of frustration. There was nothing to be done, then, except stop trying to row so bull-headedly against the current, draw in your oars, and let the river take you.

Once I did this—not that easy for an A-type personality—my life became about “process,” as they say. And then there was time enough for everything. Spain forced me open. Like a pruned rose bush, I kept having my expectations and determinations smartly lopped off, until I was made to flower, in spite of myself.

 

AVID 

At the University of Madrid, our classes lasted all year, rather than ten weeks (CAL had switched to the quarter system), which allowed us to explore our subjects in depth. There were no quizzes and almost no homework, only midterms and final exams. This meant that there was no outside pressure—no constant coercion, as I’d always experienced it—to study. Once I was free of external imperatives and was allowed to rely on internal ones, my excitement about learning returned.

History, which had always seemed a dead subject to me, came alive, especially now that I was surrounded by it. When I took short trips, hitchhiking with friends—when it was their turn to stick out a thumb—I would sit in a ditch avidly reading about whatever place we were bound for. I found, for the first time, that I wasn’t forgetting what I learned as soon as I learned it, probably because anxiety wasn’t running interference—and so I was able to begin to weave the facts I was absorbing from various disciplines together into a sturdy tapestry of knowledge. I can’t describe the intensity of the intellectual ferment I felt then. I realized that I’d always had a strong natural curiosity, which had been blighted by the rigidity and regimentation of the American public school system and curriculum. I found myself wishing I could have been home schooled or educated by tutors, my intellectual curiosity given free rein.

 

JANE

Maybe because Britte had led such an insulated life, I also needed to forge a connection to someone who hadn’t. When I met Jane on the Aurelia, though she was only in her mid-twenties, she’d already had more than her share of sorrow and was on her way to Israel on a sort of pilgrimage. She’d played the trumpet, but a dead tooth had changed her embouchure and brought her musical career to an end; the man she’d loved and led T- groups with had married her best friend; and the four-year-old brother she’d helped raise—and loved as her own child—had died.

“Dear Jane,

“I’m really scared to be frank—but I’m also willing to take a risk. I want to say, ‘Tell me what you know about life. I’m trying to understand what’s happening to me—and I feel like you can help me.’ Knowing you and Britte suggests this to me—there are only a few people we meet in life whom we can love deeply and intimately, and we only reach our full potential when we love and are loved in this way. I sometimes wonder why I can’t love EVERYBODY; then I think: there are only a few people in our lives who are willing to reach deep enough to touch what is best in us—and though we never know why these people are willing and others aren’t, they are all we need to give meaning to our lives, all we need to teach us who we are and how to love ourselves.

“I can’t embrace all of humanity—I can’t reach the potential behind all the faces I meet coming and going. I can only hope to let loose the line on my needs, my desires, my talents, my ambitions, to fly my soul like a kite, to pursue fearlessly what I love and reject fearlessly what I don’t—and be willing to cry as many times as such freedom sets as its price.”

                                                                         …

Despite my disclaimer, I was able to feel, for the first time since childhood, a genuine love for all of humanity—and found in myself a new patience and tolerance. At the same time I understood, quite clearly, that this change had come about because, at long last, I felt loved.

BREAKING FREE

I don’t have much writing from the year I was in Spain because, after the first month or two, I got too busy to keep a diary. I didn’t take the time to write rough drafts of my letters or copy them, either—so I don’t have much to jog my memory except for a few letters to Jane, which I seem to have taken some pains with. I know I wrote Britte assiduously for many months and depended on her two or three letters a week as a kind of lifeline.

In my “diary” I wrote:

“Last night Wendy told me I had a beautiful, beautiful voice—that I didn’t know how much it meant to other people to hear me sing, that it made her happy. I’ve been feeling, more than ever, that I was born to sing—that I have the voice and the determination, just no training or composure. I think to myself—when I get back to the States, I’ll find the best voice teacher I can and use my $500 scholarship for lessons. I’ll sing everywhere—on campus benches, street corners, at gatherings of friends—make it part of my everyday life. And when I open my mouth, all my feelings will flow out effortlessly. Now, with too little knowledge and confidence, my voice is mostly too cumbersome for me to express myself very well. But on days it’s freer, it means so much to me to be able to sing. It gives me a kind of control over my emotions—I can draw them out of some deep place inside and through the music give them shape. Sometimes I even get goose bumps or get shaky from the intensity of the experience.

“This morning I was thinking: we all die, the end of act three—so the only way to live is to the fullest, which means slashing all the ropes with which society ensnares you. Break free, think new, do what you really WANT and need to do—to hell with college if you are unhappy studying. You can sing, you can draw—these are what you live for—so why aren’t you throwing all your energy and soul into them. Why?”

MAN-HANDLED

On the Aurelia I’d befriended Ella and Dale in a T-group—an encounter group for the students in our program—led by the ship’s recreation director, Jane. The idea was to give us an opportunity to share our feelings about the adventure we were embarked on. The experience was eye-opening for me from the outset because I was astonished that what I could do easily seemed so hard for others–that is, talk about your feelings. (As I’ve said, I’ve always been better at big talk than small talk.) In the group dynamic that developed, Dale and I emerged as the leaders among the participants—and she slapped me on the fanny after the first session. Dale was lanky and tan, with frosted streaks in her hair, Ella a pear-shaped bleached blond. While Dale was charismatic, comical, and had an air of easy confidence, Ella was droll, companionable, and accommodating to a fault. They lived with a widowed senora until Dale decided she wanted to move into a dorm with Spanish girls—then Ella moved into the “residencia” where I lived.

At the end of a letter to Jane, I wrote about one of my first outings with Ella and Dale:

“It’s 2:00 in the morning, and I’ve GOT to go to bed. But first I have to tell you about our adventure of the weekend. Dale and Ella and I went to the Parque del Retiro to spend a peaceful (?) afternoon rowing on the lake. We had been out about thirty seconds when some guys, sixteen to eighteen years old, collided with our boat. We didn’t pay much attention to them until they started to follow us around the lake. Soon another boat joined in hot pursuit—and another. Before long we were surrounded by six or seven boats and we couldn’t budge. The boys yelled and tried to climb into our boat—we yelled back and shoved them away. There was some splashing—we got drenched; then they stole our oars. Finally one or two guys started manhandling us—pinching and sticking their hands up our dresses. At this point I got mad and slugged one of them. In the midst of all this, a boat pulled up with a girl and three very handsome older boys who helped us into their boat as quickly as possible and rowed us to shore. Our heroes! Well, I’m going to stick this letter in an envelope right now, and if it isn’t coherent—to hell with it. I miss you.

“P.S. I’m rich—a $500 check arrived in the mail—some kind of scholarship.”

GAMBIT

Going to Spain to study my junior year, as glamorous as it might sound, was for me a desperate gambit. For one thing, my mother was violently opposed the idea and screamed at me in arguments about it that I couldn’t go because we didn’t have the money. For another, after my summer in Mexico, I didn’t have any illusions about how hard it was going to be for me in Madrid. I’d had to drop out of the study program in Guadalahara because it was too advanced for me—I’d had three fewer years of Spanish than the other Americans—and I would be in the same situation in Spain. Also, I knew just how prone I was to introversion, anxiety, and depression. But my major was Spanish, and, because I was too shy to really use the language, I wasn’t becoming fluent. If I was going to be a Spanish teacher like Britte, I knew I had to do something radical to remedy the situation. The only thing I could think of was to cannonball into the water so I would have to either sink or swim.

We sailed to Le Havre in France on a small Italian ship called the Aurelia. Most of the passengers were high school students returning to their native countries after a year in the U. S. as exchange students—but sixty of us were bound for Madrid from all the various branches of the University of California. Spain was still a fascist country at the time, under the heel of the dictator Franco. The previous year, two Americans students had gotten into political trouble, jeopardizing the program—so it was decided that future students should have an “orientation” on a cruise ship to prepare them for what lay ahead.

Spain was an old world country back then, its customs from an earlier age. Life in a large city like Madrid was still like life in a village. You walked down street arm-in-arm with your girlfriends, met the eyes of the people you passed, smiled, and nodded a greeting. Whole families, as well as couples, went strolling in the evening. You stopped in open, stand-up “bars” where they served wine and “tapas”—appetizers like spicy potatoes and mussels, the floors littered with shells—or went to the “mesones,” cave-like cantinas where everyone clapped and sang to the rhythms of flamenco guitars. Every activity, whether standing in line in the post office or buying a pair of shoes, was a social event—a chance to visit and get to know people.

I lived in a boarding house that occupied two floors of an old apartment building—with thirty other women, all of them Spanish except for my American friends Ella and Wendy. I slept on a rickety bed that folded out of a cabinet in a narrow room I shared with two Spanish roommates. We ate in the communal dining room, daintily cutting up all our fruit, including bananas, with a knife and fork. Our meat was rationed, so we had to count our “albondigas”—the meatballs we helped ourselves to from serving platters. After the “comida” at 2:00, it was siesta time—all the shops, even the banks, closed—but rather than nap, the Spanish girls piled onto each other’s beds for a talk fest. There were only two bathrooms, with no tubs, just showers, and since water was rationed too, we had to make our ablutions brief.

When we came back after an evening out, we had to clap for the “sereno,” an elderly night watchman—there was one for every few city blocks—to raise him from the nearest bar; he let us into our apartment building with a huge ring of keys and accompanied us up to our floor in a precarious glass elevator. Lovers had a hard time finding a place to make out; they’d soon be sent on their way by the serenos.

I remember: the blue, non-absorbent toilet paper and the flurry of cockroaches scrambling for the corners whenever I snapped on the bathroom light; the tiny creampuffs with souring cream that Ella and I bought, anyway, from the pastry shop on the corner; the café a half a mile away where they served “tortillitas” (pancakes), the only place in the city that did; the bar across the street where I habitually downed a jigger of cognac before exams.

Weekends we took side trips to historic towns, like Toledo, Segovia, and Salamanca. When I think of Spain, I think of waking up in a pension, leaning over a wrought-iron balcony above a courtyard full of sunlight and flowers…walking out at dawn up narrow cobbled streets past vendors with their burros and carts.