In the days before digital cameras and iPhones, there was the little automatic camera, designed for the “real-camera”- challenged and also for tourists wanting to take hasty snaps of twelve-day trips covering lots of places. When departing by plane with such a camera (or even with a more complicated one), it was wise also to bring enough film to get you through the trip, because it might cost the earth if bought wherever you were when you ran out — or not be available at all, depending on location. You also needed a lead-lined bag in which to put the film when you went through customs, both before inserting it in the camera and afterwards, when you brought it home undeveloped to be turned into pictures back in the good old USA. After that, if you were industrious you invested in albums for storage of your photographed memories, carefully labeled. If not industrious, you showed them to a few people, hating how your hair looked under such hurried and often under-washed conditions, and then left them in the paper envelopes they’d come in, mysterious hints of your past for your descendants to find and puzzle over when you had passed on to a place where no cameras would be needed.
I was one of the “real-camera”-challenged. No time and light determinations for me, much less changing lenses when the tour leader was calling for a return to the bus. Not that I didn’t own a “real” camera. My newly adult children had thoughtfully provided one on my 59th birthday, just before I set off on what was to be my first travel experience outside the United States since I was nineteen. (I omit several day trips to Tijuana with my first [California] husband because he liked bullfights, a five-day honeymoon in Bermuda with my second [New York] husband, and a long family weekend in Montreal just before the oldest child went off to college. None of those required a passport, so they don’t really count.)
However, there was no time before the trip to become deft and knowledgeable with the “real” camera my children had bought, so I acquired one of the small automatic ones — a Canon, I think — as an interim measure. Also many boxes of film and the lead-lined bag. And when I got home, a large photograph album in which to mount my camera work, carefully dated and labeled, as the still practicing lawyer I then was might be wont to do.
I bring all this up, after first bringing that heavy album up the stairs to my office, because one of the things that soured my summer — besides having to edit a very long manuscript written ten years ago about a subject unpleasant to recollect — was reading about other people’s travels in their blogs while Bill and I weren’t traveling anywhere. (Yes, I am sometimes mean-spirited.) So I decided to console myself with a trip through that first photograph album. [There were many more to come.]
I hadn’t looked at that first album for a long time. The photos now seem pretty awful technically, and that’s probably not the fault of the camera. (Re-photographing the prints with an iPhone to upload them to WordPress probably didn’t help either.) But I’m glad I took them (bad as they are), saved them in the album and labeled them. They do exactly what they were intended to do: bring back the past now that I’m older (so much older) than before.
In 1990, I had been separated from my second husband for three years, had briefly recycled two old boyfriends (sequentially) with results no more satisfying than the first time, was living in a studio apartment in Boston by myself, and had just finished paying off all the credit card loans that put braces on my children’s teeth, sneakers on their growing feet, got me through three years of law school and bought me a Subaru. (In Massachusetts, you drive or you’re stuck.) I was nearing sixty and had a net worth of $0. But I had a good salary, no more college obligations for the children, and had begun to save a little something. It was time to go somewhere, while I was still young enough to do it. I renewed my passport of forty years before. Unfortunately, it was nearly summer, and I didn’t want ever-ever-ever to be in debt again. (Even though those were the days when you could still deduct all interest — not just mortgage interest — from your gross income before calculating what you owed Uncle Sam.) So whatever trip I took had to be cheap. And because it was so late, there wasn’t much choice. On someone’s advice, I wrote away to the University of New Hampshire (no email yet), which then ran a program of tours for older travelers. Their August trip was two weeks in Salamanca and northwestern Spain. By bus. If I were willing to room with a stranger, it would be even cheaper.
I spoke no Spanish and had minimal interest in Spanish culture. I also suspected that Spain in August would be extremely hot. But I was lonely. I needed company, and I needed to get away from the Uniform System of Citation and the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure for a while, if only a short while. That meant I was in for Salamanca. On balance, it turned out to be a pretty good trip. Besides the copious perspiration, there were some things, identified in what follows, I could have done without. But I made a friend who’s still a friend, and laughed a lot (which I needed), and revived my interest in seeing how other people lived.
Why don’t you come along for a while?
The first thing we learned on arrival: all Spanish towns, Salamanca included, are organized around a central square. Pronounced (in Spain): Platha Mayor.
The first thing I learned on arrival: I don’t like traveling in large groups of people who have to stick together for purposes of the tour schedule. The second thing: I don’t like crowds of tourists either. I want it to be just me, me, me!!! (And chosen friends, of course.)
First good thing about the trip: My luck-of-the-draw roommate. Not because she had a “real camera.” Because we got on like gangbusters, and she’s still a friend. Even reads the blog. Sometimes.
One of the fun things R. and I did together in the hot un-airconditioned room we shared for twelve days was pee in our pants and do hand laundry at midnight. It was always blistering out (unless it was raining), we always drank a lot of water all day long and didn’t perspire it all away — and then we spent many an evening and every night in the room exchanging stories about men and laughing. We laughed so much and so hard people down the hall who heard the laughter, if not the stories, thought we had come on the trip together. If you know what laughing does to the aging sphincter of an overfull bladder, then you know what I’m talking about. If not, wait. (How long, I can’t say. But Kegel exercises or no, the day will come…..) It was a small room, with a tiny bathroom and a really minuscule sink. We had been cautioned to travel light and each had a limited supply of underwear. There was accordingly much late night washing (taking turns at the sink) and hanging wet panties on the shower rod. More difficult was a more occasional need: washing the under sheets of the two twin beds. Sometimes we didn’t. They usually dried of their own accord, if the hotel didn’t change them, which wasn’t often. Sssh…….
Hotels in Spain were then rated from one to five stars. There were no hotels without stars. So expectations for ours, Hotel Gran Via with its single star, were low. But Gran Via was clean (when we weren’t soiling it), and it tried. Pedro (I found his name in the photo album) — maitre d’, waiter and general factotum for all twenty-eight of us — was very nice. (No picture of Pedro uploaded. Sorry.)
Being a one-star hotel, Gran Via’s menu was heavy on starch, pork, and sweets. Within a few days, R. and I — trying to stay healthy — were craving something that had grown in the earth. All we could find in all of Salamanca, during what was labeled “free time” on the schedule, were”sandwiches vegetales.” White bread, a few wisps of blessedly green lettuce and — yes! –slices of fresh tomato! Here I am, thirty-five pounds heavier but twenty-four years younger than today, under the sign for the “sandwiches” — looking coy and trying with my fist to hide from the camera what might be called a slight double chin:
And now, dear readers, I fear this self-indulgent reminiscence has run on too long. Back next time with the rest of the trip, unless too many of you cry, “Enough!” Which you can do in the comment section below. I won’t be offended. Honest.
Although next time — if there is one — will be much more cultural, I assure you.