12. A Language Adventure. Spain in 1960
With my interest in history and adventure, I found Spain to be as fascinating a mixture of peoples and cultures as France. Basques, Celts, Iberians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Berbers, Jews, and Gypsies (originally from India), have all contributed their genetic, cultural and linguistic influence.
Nowadays we often forget that it was the cosmopolitan Arab culture of Southern Spain, El Andalus, that was the great teacher of medieval Europe. As the Christians of Northern Spain reconquered the Muslim South, scholars from all countries of Europe flocked to Toledo and other centres to translate Arab documents on science and philosophy. The Arabs had surged out of the desert to conquer lands from India to Spain. In this way, they had come into contact with the learning of India, Persia, Babylon, Egypt and Greece, which they had absorbed into their culture. They also had significant trading contact with Tang China and knowledge of Chinese science and technology. Western science, mathematics, medicine, music, architecture and other fields of study were tremendously stimulated by contact with the advanced civilization of the Arabs. When I visited the graceful buildings and gardens of Andalusia, I tried to imagine El Andalus at the height of its brilliance.
In modern times, Spain has experienced an economic miracle and construction boom that make it a different place from the country I visited in the 1960s, but the older Spain I first encountered had an unspoiled charm that I enjoyed very much. I visited Pamplona during the Fiesta de San Fermin on July 7. The whole town was engaged in a three day party of drinking and singing and conviviality. I could practice my Spanish in every little bar and restaurant. It was all very safe despite the drinking and revelry. I was mostly attracted to the partying and declined to risk my life running with the bulls. Besides, it required getting up very early in the morning.
Spain, especially in the South, is a country of strong impressions. The overpowering sun brings out the contrasts between sun and shade, between the dark tones of the trees and flowers, the brightness of the whitewashed houses and the stingy orange of the dry earth. As I was told in those days, “It is the sun which allows us to put up with Franco.” Everywhere people were proud and friendly. My ability to communicate in Spanish enabled me to walk into every bodega and tapas bar, make friends and explore the culture through the language.