32 years on I arrive once again at Santander on a ferry from Plymouth. This time alone and on foot. I am picking up again my journey following in the footsteps of Laurie Lee who walked through Spain in 1935 , unaware that the country was already irrevocably set on a momentous civil war that would change it and Europe for ever.
Last month I travelled to Vigo where Lee landed in Spain. This time I am traveling to Orense in Galicia to walk south, along the Via De La Plata, towards Zamora. I lived in Santander for two years in the 1980s with my first love and where I took my wife, not the same person, two years ago for a short holiday.
A year ago my wife, out of the blue, decided to divorce me. I stand outside C/Santa Lucia 15, and gaze up at the 3rd floor balcony. Behind the shuttered window , I am lying with my first love. She pronounces sadly but definitively that I will not be the father of any child that she might have. We do not part for several months, years even, but that was the beginning of the end.
I wonder alone around old haunts but this visit I am accompanied by the ghosts of two former lovers. There weren’t the signs in the bars of “crisis menus” that I had seen in Vigo, Valladolid and Madrid one month earlier. Santander was always more prosperous and protected from the economic storms of the rest of the peninsular.
I search for an old friend, not seen for 25 years. He has left the family travel agency business. He was the boss. Something feels wrong. Somebody else looking at a second chance in life?
I track down the red-haired vivacious M who had fallen head over heels for L, way back in the distant past, a “bombonero” man, in my previous life in Santander. L, in his vivid orange overalls, would effortlessly sling a couple of heavy metal gas canisters on his shoulders and race up the stairs of the city’s flats. He was all rippling muscle and entirely defenseless against M’s Scottish charms. L would fly those steps. At the thought I recall Cortezar’s description of the uniqueness of a stair which perhaps put into words the thought process of an Egyptian pyramid architect or an Aztec master craftsman). L’ s life was unencumbered by such thoughts, mine dominated by them. Cortezar said…
No one will have failed to observe that frequently the floor bends in such a way that one part rises at a right angle to the plane formed by the floor and then the following section arranges itself parallel to the flatness, so as to provide a step to a new perpendicular, a process which is repeated in a spiral or in a broken line to highly variable elevations.
Ducking down and placing the left hand on one of the vertical parts and right hand upon the the corresponding horizontal, one is in momentary possession of a step or stair.
Each one of these steps, formed as we have seen by two elements, is situated somewhat higher and further than the one prior, a principle which gives the idea of a staircase, while whatever other combination, producing perhaps more beautiful or picturesque shapes, would surely be incapable of translating one from the ground floor to the first floor.
I had stayed recently in a hotel in Madrid on the Gran Via, Hotel de las Letras, in which the public and bedroom walls were not decorated with pictures, but with quotes from , mainly Spanish and Latin American, writers. At the foot of the stairs was the quote from Julio Cortazar. It resonates as my personal emotional journey is a steep climb with many false steps and stumbles along the way.
As I make my way through Spain,I am reading the “Snow Leopard” about the quest in Nepal , by the writer, of a glimpse of the unattainable mythical creature . The process of the journey applies balm over raw grief, a product of a lost soulmate. A beautiful tale punctuated by devastating insights into the inner turmoil of a man’s loss. The book was a tip from Emily Barr , the writer, as a good read to take on a personal journey of discovery . I am not searching for an elusive snow leopard but I am seeking something as I retrace the footsteps of Laurie lee through Spain. Peter Matthiessen, the author, is grieving for his wife, and embarks on a journey through Nepal in search of a glimpse of the creature, real enough but rendered mythical by dint of its invisibility to the human eye when in its native surroundings. Subtly interwoven into the story of his journey are slender threads of insights into his buried feelings. These observations snag on the weft of the tale,momentarily, but are soon unpicked and the pattern continues to unfold. Matthiessen, at the start of his journey, talks of “Knowing that at the bottom of each breath there was a hollow space that needed to be filled.”
My hotel in Santander is on C/ General Mola, named after one of Franco’s fellow rebel conspirators, reminding me of the city’s affiliations and my ex landlord, one of the conspirators who threw his weight behind the infamous Lieutenant General Tejero, he of the handlebar moustache , who held the Spanish Parliament hostage on that infamous day of 23 Feb 1981. The king, Juan Carlos, according to the accepted narrative, intervened decisively and ordered the rebels to go back to their barracks. Another version has the king, the figurehead of the old order and establishment, losing his nerve at the moment of truth, and betraying his fellow conspirators. Take your choice.
I recall the controversy in the 1980s in Santander, when Franco’s statue, in a main square, had to be removed in order to build a car park. It never returned but I muse that perhaps it is there waiting in the wings for a dramatic return when, as some diehards of the right would no doubt like to think, the inevitable failure of democracy leads to a return of the old values … Over in Greece, I can see the old Generals dusting themselves down too, waiting for their moment.