MY SPANISH YEAR BY Mrs. BERNHARD WHISHAW

INTRODUCTORY

To the foreigner visiting Spain for the first time so many things seem topsy-turvy that, unless a philosophical spirit be cultivated, one’s temper might suffer serious damage. But there is one way not only to endure, but actually to enjoy the minor discomforts, absence of consistency, and utter lack of common sense forced upon one at every turn in this most original country; and that is to regard them all from the standpoint of comic opera. So many people expect to find Spain merely an enlarged edition of Bizet’s Carmen that it ought not to be difficult for them to smile when comic-operatic incidents are enacted before them in daily life; and yet one often sees the impatient traveller exhausting himself in furious denunciations of tough beef, bad butter, unpunctual trains, faulty postal services, retrograde hotels, and so on ad infinitum, instead of thanking his lucky stars that there is still one country in Europe which remains much as God made it, instead of being recast in the mould preferred by the tourist agencies.

No doubt when we get express trains flying from Irun to Madrid and from Granada to Seville at sixty[vi] miles an hour, with a chain of cosmopolitan hotels all along the road, those tourist agencies will be able to do far better business. But their clients will not then travel in Spain but in Cosmopolitania, and the last stronghold of romance left in Western Europe will have gone the way of Switzerland and Italy, where in some towns it is almost the exception to hear the language of the native spoken in the streets. Thank Heaven, Spain has not yet awakened to the commercial advantages of moulding her national characteristics into the groove of the common-place, and her soul has not yet been cut out and thrown away in the pursuit of filthy lucre.

Meanwhile, the traveller who follows the beaten track has really very little to complain of, for during the last ten years great progress has been made both in the train service and the hotel accommodation; and when you have grumbled and slept and scolded through the eight or ten or twelve or twenty hours’ railway journey from one provincial capital to another, and take your place at the table d’hôte in one of the big new hotels, you might almost imagine yourself in London or Paris or New York. One thing, however, reminds you that you are in Spain: the anxious solicitude of the waiters, who watch your every mouthful as if it were a matter of personal consequence to them that you should be pleased with your dinner, and press fresh dishes upon you if you do not eat as much as they think you ought, assuring you that they are very excellent and that you must keep up your strength in order to enjoy the beautiful monuments that you are going[vii] to visit to-morrow. This interest of the mozo in his master’s client is genuine, not inspired by the anticipation of favours to come. He feels it as a reflection upon the credit of the house if you refuse to take every course, and finds it difficult to understand that abstinence may mean satiety, not dissatisfaction with the viands. I doubt if anywhere else one seems of quite so much importance in the eyes of the establishment as in Spain, for these attentions begin with your first meal in the hotel and are continued throughout your stay; and can anything make you more at home in an hotel than a cordial interest in your appetite?

If you complain of the interminable time that you have spent on the journey, you will be met with the grave assurance that it is safer to travel slow than fast, and that Spain has far fewer railway accidents than England or the United States. You may reply that she has far fewer trains, but we don’t trouble ourselves about the law of averages in Spain, and the Spaniard solemnly assures you that nothing is gained by the alarming rapidity of Anglo-Saxon life except more speedy arrival at the grave.

If you dispute an hotel bill, longer than would be made out at the Ritz, for an entertainment which it would be complimentary to describe as mediocre, the landlord justifies his charges by explaining how much you get for your money in these days of progress, compared with what you lacked when life in Spain was cheaper, and after all what can a dollar or an esterlina (£) more or less matter to so great a lord as yourself, who must evidently be a millionaire[viii] to be able to travel so far from home merely for his own pleasure. You must also take into account, he says, that the tourist season only extends over a couple of months in the spring, thanks to the general ignorance abroad of the charms of the winter climate in that particular part of Spain. And how, he asks, is a poor man to keep his hotel open all the year round for the convenience of the English lord in the spring, unless the English lord pays enough when he comes to save him from bankruptcy during the other ten months of the year? And if these arguments—in the course of which the exorbitant items under discussion have been skilfully left out of the conversation—do not remove your objections to an extortionate bill, only one of two courses remains open to you. Either shake the dust of Spain off your feet and depart to some other land where the innkeepers realise that one contented guest will bring more money into their coffers than ten who depart in anger; or come with me right off the beaten track, and learn to know the real Spain, and to love, as I do, the real Spaniard.

Will he exploit the foreigner? He would rather give you the coat off his back than take a penny from you that he has not honestly earned; and he will do you all sorts of services with the native grace which has created the tradition that “every Spaniard is a gentleman.” That class of Spaniard does not frequent the large cities, nor is he to be found by foreigners who seek him with the aid of an interpreter. Indeed, he is not worth the interpreter’s powder and shot, for he cannot pay a commission on[ix] purchases made by the guileless traveller through the agency of his guide: he has nothing to sell save his honour and courtesy, and those are not marketable commodities. So he is left undisturbed in his beautiful mountain fastnesses or in his fertile plains, where only a select few will take the trouble to seek him out. And long may he remain there!

But when he is sought and found by the traveller who is not content to form his opinion of the whole country on his observations from the window of an hotel, then indeed it becomes evident that the heart of Spain beats strong and true beneath the froth of political passion and greed of gain which disfigure her outward semblance; and the veil of romance woven about her by the poet and the artist will enwrap that traveller, and he will return to Spain again and again, until he, like the writer, finds that into the web are woven some of his own heartstrings.

Then all the minor discomforts will become but mere matter for laughter, with an arrière-pensée of satisfaction at the barrier they set up against the flood of cheap trippers which, but for them, might overwhelm our Peninsula. And if sometimes we hear a note of tragedy beneath the light chorus of our opera, it does but deepen the music, as the purple shadows in an Andalucian street throw up the golden glow that bathes the white-washed houses basking in the sun.

One word more. My readers may perhaps be surprised to find a “heretic” on good terms with many ecclesiastics in Spain, for there seems to be an[x] impression abroad that this is a bigoted land where foreign non-Catholics are given the cold shoulder, if nothing worse.

Of course there are many Spaniards who feel strongly on the subject of their religion, and no doubt any one who publicly showed disrespect to objects of worship here would have cause to regret his lack of good manners. But so long as he behaves decently in sacred places, and observes a certain amount of discretion in conversation, the “heretic” need fear no discourtesy either from priests or people. Nor will he meet with any oppressive zeal in the direction of proselytising. The most embarrassing effort in that direction that I have known was the gentle remark from a nun: “You are so good already that you ought to be a little better. I pray daily that you may become a good Catholic.” And an entertaining experience was that of a member of our family whom a distinguished divine announced his desire to convert—

“We will begin with a game of chess,” said he, “and after that we will discuss dogmas.”

The game of chess proved so engrossing that it lasted till bedtime, when the divine took his leave in a hurry, forgetting all about the dogmas.

The accusation of bigotry now—whatever may formerly have been the case—is as undeserved as many other unkind things that have been said about Spain.

“We are very much misrepresented by foreign writers,” an intelligent young officer said to me one day; “if ever you write a book about Spain, I hope[xi] you will speak of us as you find us, so that for once we may have a little justice from a friend.”

With this rather pathetic appeal in mind I have tried my best to describe Spain as I have found it, and I must maintain that I have done my Spanish friends no more than justice, even though those who do not know them write me down a prejudiced Hispanophil.

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