Travel journal entry, 5/99
We hit the road north from Barcelona in a rented blue Ford, fast and straight for Girona. We could have taken our time, it being May Day, labor-up-in-arms day all over Spain – parades for which we arrive too late and speeches ditto. Cathedral closed, Jewish museum closed, everything closed, even communication lines it seems: road signs suddenly in Catalán, calles morphing to carrers, salidas to sortidas as Spanish, Castiliano, the oppressor’s hated tongue, all but disappears, marking with its absence the start of our long slide into another country. Two days to run the French side of the Pyrannees, re-enter at Irún, signs pointing to Azkoita, Elgóibar, Lekeito, Oñate. What language is this, how did we get here and how do we get to the pintoresco north coast, sails at sunrise, bare-chested young hunks hauling dripping silver nets from the sea as in a friend’s photos? That’s what we thought we wanted, yet we turn south. Basque country. ETA country. Leaving the coast we drop down to Guernica, reassuringly not-quaint, not a theme park, not yet anyway, not yet GuernícaLand, not EuskadaWorld but a small ordinary city rebuilt since the War with shops, parking lots, municipal buildings, ordinary people living ordinary lives. Museum closed for siesta as if no American tourists have blown into town in a rented sedan to think of Picasso, of anguished horses with unicorn-horn tongues, and bulls and weeping women and dead babies – everything here a reference to something on a gallery wall – and the oak tree where for centuries men in black berets crafted a government in its shade; the tree dead now, a stump a snag a multi-amputee. Headless. Gutted. A wrought-iron fence holds souvenir seekers and their pocket knives at a respectful distance. Nearby and not closed for siesta, in a plaza with broken concrete stairs, twists of rusted rebar beckon: History, this way! "Memorial," the sign says, just that, but it’s enough. Guernica. Gernika. Luftwaffe target practice, R&D, 1937. Broken steps, cracked walls defaced by posters and graffiti: this is what’s left. This and the voices of children from the nearby school, the pop of motorbike exhaust in a modern rebuilt city. Here too is the heart, the not-quaint heart where the bombs rained down. Here is where they died, the weeping women and their children, the spike-tongued bull and horse; here is where old men gathered beneath the tree when it was a tree and not a blasted torso, not a relic, not a splinter from the cross or dedo from the hand of San Juan de la Cruz; before the War, before Hemingway drove an ambulance or even thought to; before Ed Bender and Milt Wolfe* put on uniforms to fight … here, old men dreamed of Euskada** free and sovereign again, its impossible language no longer suppressed and the necks of its people no longer bent beneath the boot-heel of a lisping, arrogant Madrid.
*Bender and Wolfe were family friends, members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades who fought with the Spanish Republic against Franco.
**Euskada is the Basque- language name for the Basque territory in Spain and France.