The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. Saint Augustine, 4th-5th century
Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience. Francis Bacon, 15th-16th century
Travel is merely a strategy for accumulating photographs. Susan Sontag, 20th century
Bull****!! Me, right now, reading Susan Sontag who thinks she is so clever.
So, John Wayne, yes, THE John Wayne, was standing outside the Hotel Carlos V in Toledo smoking a cigarette back in 1964 when my buen compañero, Andrés, asked him for an autograph. Andrés was 15 or 16 at the time, if my math is right, and John Wayne was in town filming the movie “Circus World” with Rita Hayworth, Claudia Cardinale and a bunch of other people my students have never heard of. So, when Andrés asks him for his autograph, John Wayne said, “Sure kid, hold my cigarette.” So he did!
About once a week, Andrés, comes by and takes me to see what he calls either “hidden Toledo” or “secret Toledo” and it is always interesting. I’ve had a great time going down into basements of restaurants and old monasteries where street level is 16th century, down one floor is Moorish, and the bottom was built by the Romans. I can now date buildings I see by the type of bricks and stones used in their construction and the patterns of how they are laid. Andrés apparently knows everybody in town and nobody has said “no” when we show up and he says that he wants to show the American something down in the basement. We’ve poked around some pretty cool places and I’ve been very impressed by Andrés’ circle of friends and the stories he tells, but, that was before he told me the John Wayne thing! Seriously! I’ve been hanging out with a guy who held John Wayne’s cigarette!
The picture above is something that Andrés showed me one rainy night. It is just around the corner from my apartment and I had walked by it many times without paying it too much attention. In Spanish speaking countries one gets used to seeing these small monuments, either roadside or built into some wall, with a depiction of a Saint or the Virgin Mary. I’m sure they all have a story but this one involves a young seamstress in the 19th century who, because she was always working, had little hope of ever meeting someone to marry. So she prayed and prayed to this picture of the Holy Mother and, guess how this ends, …yep, …she meets someone, falls in love, marries, AND lives happily ever after. Bet you didn’t see that one coming! So now, the picture to which she prayed is displayed inside the wall of this building. It is lighted at night and protected by a glass cover with a few small holes drilled through so that any woman who wishes to find a husband can come by and pray and then seal the deal with an offering of a sewing pin which is poked through the hole. I showed this to a group of students I ran into the other week and one had some bobby pins. I told her “No dice, not the deal” but she pointed out that, among the sewing needles, there were already some bobby pins lying about. No doubt she is now on the short list to wedded bliss but I hope that it all happens after we get back. Not on my watch!
When Andrés was in college, he walked around Spain, France, Germany and a few other places between semesters, playing his guitar and singing, earning just enough to eat and walk to the next town. He’s got some cool stories now. He’s bringing me the guitar he traveled with so that I can plunk around with it in my spare time. Last night he told me that he played mostly folk music, some blue grass, and Johnny Cash. Not what I pictured but, hey, it was 1969. Crazy times!
THIS is why spending a semester abroad is so cool. The accumulation of stories, friendships, and a million little things that the tourists will never know about Toledo and how life is lived here. The way everything shines at night after a light rain. The rhythm of work and play and the insane times that people here consider appropriate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. How every morning, delivery trucks are allowed just a few hours to restock the cafes, stores and restaurants and then are made to clear the narrow streets so that people can walk around in relative peace. The way that, each morning, overnight tourists, dragging their suitcases and sleepy children, all head downhill from their hotels to where their tour buses wait while older, retired people, stand patiently in the cold while their dog circles some patch of grass until the moment is just right to, you know, do what dogs do. THIS IS WHY we came all this way to study! They don’t make refrigerator magnets and post cards to commemorate these important things. We will just have to bring them home in our memories. What it all means in the greater scheme of our lives is something for each person to decide for him or herself in the fullness of time and lives lived. We take lots of pictures of cool stuff but, in the end, the best “pictures” are all stories and they live in our memories. Some can be shared but others are beyond explanation. In my experience, these are usually the best.