Posted on November 22, 2015


The maid got on the elevator and I asked her if she was going up or down. She pointed up and then said “down.”

Ah, for a moment I thought I was back in the Third World, but I was in Segovia, Spain for a little ceremony I’d been invited to participate in.

So, “which is it,” I asked, “up or down?”

“Oh,” she said slightly blushing. “I’m going up.” The door closed on her with all her apparatus and cart for housekeeping and I patiently waited for the other elevator to take me down to ground floor, designed with the number/letter of zero, 0, on the list of floor buttons to push.

It took me a moment to figure that one the day I arrived. I know the ground floor was what we normally call the “first floor,” but in Spanish-speaking countries it is styled the “planta baja.’ I had never see it marked with a zero, but one adjusts rapidly when traveling.

I hadn’t been in Spain in fifteen or twenty years. The little differences in behavior and culture when traveling always throw me a bit. Spaniards in Castile, and especially in and around the capital Madrid, and places like Segovia, a spectacular monument to ancient, Roman, and Medieval Spain, always preface or inject “vale” into their conversation, kind of like we do “you know” as we speak.

I know “vale” is just a kind of filler, but “vale” also means “it’s worth something” in Spanish and so it took me a few “vales” thrown at me by hotel clerks, taxi drivers, waiters and so forth to adjust. They’re not saying, “it’s worth,” they’re just saying “you know” in Castilian Spanish.

Argentines, for example, throw in “che” as they speak. I don’t know why, but they do, and it is so common that Fidel Castro’s old Marxist sidekick from Argentina, Ernesto Guevera, was known as “Che” Guevara by the world who either hated or worshipped him.

Spaniards I remembered are not inherently rude. They are kind of like New Yorkers. They are plain spoken and say pretty much what they think.

At breakfast I asked the waitress “is there a to go cup I can use for my coffee?”

She looked at me, and without so much as a pause, said “no.”

A waiter, as young as she was, looked up and said, “yes,” and dug a little cup out of drawer and gave it to me.

In many Latin American countries where I’ve lived or worked, like Costa Rica for example, they never would say, outright, “no” to any request. They are too polite. That, of course, is almost as frustrating as rudeness, or simple frankness.

When I was checking in at the desk, the girls were all business. As they were moving paper across the counter to me, one mentioned that the “whee fee” was noted in there.

I’m a little hard of hearing. “Whee fee” I thought I heard, so I asked—all this conversation in Spanish of course since I’ve spoken the language as a child growing up in Lima, Peru—“what did you say?”

“The whee fee countersign is on that card,” she looked at me.

“Whee fee?” I asked.

She no doubt noted my passport as American.

In her best English accent, ‘wi fi,’ she said.

Alas, whee fee, wi fi. Okay, got it, although it took me two days to get it to work properly.

I mentioned that to the girl at reception a little later and she said another client at the hotel had had the same problem with access and then the girl turned to work on her computer screen. Well, I grew up part of my life near New York. I can handle it. They’re not rude. Just outspoken. Vale.

Breakfast was a delicious assortment of pastries, eggs, meats, breads, etc. all in a buffet. I think it cost $10 or so, but since there was no one to sit me, and no one charged me, I had a nice free breakfasts on two mornings, including carrying out my coffee in a to go cup one morning.

Spain, as near as I can tell, is slowly recovering from a truly deep recession that, while not coming to grief almost completely like the Greeks, threw a real scare into the Spanish people. Plus, the Spanish are having to deal with an old separatist movement among the proud and unique Catalan provinces in the northeast, and the recent Jihadist bombings in Paris is, as far as Spaniards are concerned, just up the road. We could be next.

I went into a couple of churches while walking around the compact old Medieval city Sunday with my friend from Miami, Salvador Larrua, who was there to be inducted also as a new member of the Royal Order of Charles V.

Salvador, Luis and Larry after ivestiture and receiving diplomas, Nov. 14, 2015, Alcazar, Segovia

From left, Salvador Larrua (Cuba), Luis Conte (Cuba), Larry Clayton (USA)

There were few people in the churches, and Salvador and I, both 73, felt as though we were the youngest in the small knots of old folks shuffling in on wheelchairs and walking canes.

Spain, like so much of Europe, has fallen away from their ancient Christian faith, possibly just when they need it most to confront radical Islam, just up the street, but they certainly don’t need a gringo historian to remind them of the dangers of radical Islam. We have 9/11 to give us a heads up.

I reached back into history for the last time Christian Spain directly confronted Islam. In 1492 the Spanish sovereigns, Isabelle of Castile and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon, captured the last Islamic stronghold in Spain at Granada and so ended the almost 800 year presence of Islamic peoples in Spain.

And in 1502 the Christians, tired of old conspiracies and revolts among the Moors (as the Muslims were called in Spain) gave the remaining Moors a choice: either convert to Christinity or hit the road into exile.

I’m not so sure that we don’t need of some of that old spirit alive in Spain today.

I saw and sensed some of it the night I was inducted into the Order with Salvador. At the end of the banquet, we all stood and drank a toast to the King and to Spain.

“Viva el Rey!” roared the assembly. Long live the King!

“Viva España!” followed. Long Live Spain! Amen to that.

Posted in: History, Journal