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Stories About Spain

Letters from Valencia

Written by: Don Harris

a little boyRecently I was looking though some old letters and unexpectedly found a note to my wife that I sent from Spain in 1965! It was exciting to relive my first experiences in Spain and striking to see how my first impressions continue to be confirmed, even now, almost 50 years later!

Since the 1960s, my family and I have enjoyed spending time with hundreds of Spanish families, and we even lived for two years in one of the sherry towns of Andalucía. But oddly enough my love for Spain had roots in my childhood – long before I had even met a Spaniard.

I was a "latchkey kid" who, for several years, was alone at home after my school day ended. I passed the time listening to jazz and browsing magazines and art books (there was no television). I was particularly drawn to a beautiful book devoted to the pictures of the mystical Spanish painter, El Greco. His depiction of the spiritual dimension of humanity and the emotional depth of his vision resonated deeply with me.

However, it was not until sixteen years later that I made a firsthand connection with the people and culture of Spain. In 1965, they were still recovering from an enormously bloody civil war, and years of hunger and deprivation. Yet despite this, I observed their strong family ties and their love of children. I found it a joy to be among them.

I was a newly commissioned Navy chaplain and Ruth and I were newlyweds planning to settle in Washington, DC for a two or three year Navy tour. However, at the last minute I was ordered to a destroyer squadron in Virginia to replace an ailing chaplain. It was quite a shock; Ruth staying alone in an unfamiliar city, and I joining the crew of my first Navy ship for a six-month cruise after only eight weeks of marriage.

While deployed, my communication with Ruth was the old-fashioned way – by U.S. Mail. This was long before the age of instant communication and virtually free telephone calls. The other day I came across the first letter of the cruise, in which I told Ruth of my enthusiasm for Spain and her people. It was an amazingly detailed letter (I loved writing even 50 years ago!) and provided a peek into the past. I will share some of it with you below.

That March, after a North Atlantic crossing, the four ships of the destroyer division nested along the pier in Valencia. Lucky for us it was during the week of Las Fallas – an annual extravaganza of food, drink, thundering fireworks and gigantic homemade satirical images that the creators would set ablaze on the final day, on the feast of San José. It is an astonishingly noisy event. The young sailors were delighted!

One day at a tapas bar in port, my thoughts went back to my childhood. I thought to myself, "Here I am in Spain; this is my chance to meet El Greco face to face, so to speak." So I left the Las Fallas festivities and caught the Talgo train to Madrid and the Prado Museum – it was only a two-hour train ride away. I was not at all prepared for what happened next, it was a life changing experience. I wrote to Ruth back home:
boys walking in a Palm Sunday procession
When I entered the Prado Museum and encountered room after room filled with El Greco’s work, I was overwhelmed with emotion and I could not tear myself away from his paintings. They were truly a religious experience.

I was so entranced or enmeshed in this experience that the only possible thing to do was to drive out to Toledo to see more of his work, the town he lived in, the cathedral he worshiped in and the whole milieu, which produced such a profound man.

So my shipmate and I caught a taxi to Toledo. It was an amazing sight. I wrote to Ruth:

It was just as {El Greco} had painted it and was easily 400 years behind times. Virtually no cars could be seen, little electricity, no heating, no English spoken, a big central plaza stocked with appropriate Castilian peasant-types, narrow winding dirt roads pounded down by centuries of use weaving between the very close brick houses and gates.

For centuries, Toledo was the political and intellectual heart of Spain. It is located on a series of hills and encircled by an immense wall. The Romans occupied it until 190 AD when it became the seat of the Visigoth kingdoms. About two centuries later, the Moors captured Toledo and ruled it for 370 years until the Christians of the Reconquest gained sovereignty in 1082. Toledo is the soul of Spain, and I wrote to my wife with great enthusiasm:

The whole city is a huge chalky hill with buildings a uniform ochre color. The Cathedral is the most moving in all Europe as far as I am concerned. It is full of treasures donated by most of the top figures in history. The woodwork is exquisite in its carving and design, as well as its embodiment of Spanish mysticism. The reredos behind the altar soars 50 feet or more and is an intricate woodcarving portraying the life of Christ in florid Spanish Gothic style. It was so overwhelming that I literally was brought to my knees.
inside the Toledo cathedral
I still see this Spain today, even as we move farther into the 21st century. The mystical spirit of El Greco, whom I met as a child, is what makes Toledo holy for me. The locus of Spain’s soul lies among the churches, synagogues and mosques built by her inhabitants over hundreds of years. Most of all, I sense this core value among my Spanish friends today. It is a spirituality, which greets all people as sacred, of equal value.

This April, Ruth and I returned to Toledo. This time, amidst the hustle and bustle of hundreds of tourists and locals, we encountered a group of 80 choirboys who had come from Japan to give a sacred concert in the cathedral. We joined them and hundreds of other faithful the next morning as we processed with palm fronds along the cobble-stoned streets that surround the cathedral. We were among people who had gathered from all over Spain to celebrate El Dia de Ramos, Palm Sunday. Toledo was no longer a place of winding dirt roads, but rather a quietly splendid city with the Zocodovar plaza packed with young people on Easter vacation.

Not in Toledo alone, but in so many cities in Spain, it is not the buildings, but the children, the parents, the grandparents, the people of all generations who continue to maintain the traditions, unaffected by cycles of prosperity and hardship. I have great faith in the Spanish people – their foundation is strong. Their loving families, cherished children and spiritual roots remain their anchor. From the first day I stepped ashore so many years ago, I felt at home. I am truly grateful to the culture and people who have had such a profound influence on my life, and for the opportunity to reciprocate through La Tienda.



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"Gracias Don por este articulo que publicaste y tu apreciación por mi tierra y mi gente, sobretodo por contarnos tu experiencia en Toledo. Yo nací en esa ciudad y la casa de mis padres estaba muy cercana a la casa de El Greco. Conocí a mi esposo en Toledo y hay nos casamos en 1964, Como puedes ver nuestros caminos se cruzaron en 1965 durante tu visita a Toledo, es en verdad una ciudad mágica reconocida como tal por El Greco. También tienes razón y es cierto que para nosotros los hijos es lo mas precioso y cuando los decimos que son nuestros tesoros eso no es por darlos un piropo es una certeza de nuestros sentimientos.Gracias una vez mas por la pasión que veo tienes por todo lo que es Español, De paso también gracias por La Tienda de donde soy cliente vuestro desde hace ya varios años.

Carmen "
October 2012

"Muchas gracias, Carmen. I cannot repeat enough that the key to a good life is to be cherished from birth -- and that is what the traditional Spanish way of life offers. We don't have to be Spanish to emulate the way they respond to their children -- we can do it too, I am grateful for their example -- bearing in mind that none of us are perfect."

"I love Spain, especially the Spanish people they are outstanding."
October 2012

"Dear Don, I am glad you have been able to enjoy some fine times with your Spanish neighbors. Those experiences are long lasting."

"Don, your love of Spain and its people shine through in all of your writing...and in La Tienda. I read all of your heartwarming Reflections of Spain and enjoy them very much; long may you find the time to continue.

Drew Irving"
October 2012

"Thank you so much, Drew, what an endorsement. The reality is that my love for the Spanish is merely a reflection of the love they have given me."

"Thank you for bringing back my beautiful memories of visiting Toledo and El Greco. Your article and letter make me proud of my Spanish heritage. All my family was born in Spain."
October 2012

"Dear Connie, I am glad you honor your ties to the land of your parents. Within you today is a little bit of Spain. "

"Don, awesome pictures, thanks for sharing it. I have a box of pictures from the 60's in Tenerife that every time I see it pull tears out of me.

Thank you,
October 2012

"Pictures are such a way to connect with your memories and your heart. I am glad that you are looking at them rather than sticking them in a shoe box on a shelf."

"Don, thank you for sharing your from-the-heart experience. I can totally relate to your adventures in Spain, having been there a number of times and envy you the opportunity of living there. It is meaningful that you took time from your busy day to write a reflective, personal note to all of us."
October 2012

"Donna, I get a lot of joy sharing my experiences with people who understand. Thanks for writing. "

"Don, I too enjoy reading about what you have to say about Spain. I am a "Military Brat" and lived in Spain from 1961-1965. I guess about the time you reached there. I have always felt that part of my heart stayed in Spain. In 2011, after 46 years, I finally returned to visit Spain & friends I had left. El Greco is my favorite painter too. "
October 2012

"Forty-plus years later. It must have been quite a spiritual reunion -- full of happy memories. Who traveled with you?"

"DON, GREAT EXPERIENCE TO SHARE! Can't wait to meet you one day. If you ever come to NY, please let me know. Agree about Toledo...

October 2012

"Dear Paul, We have much in common, as you have related in earlier times. We must get together. I am not sure when I will be in NYC, I usually fly to New England where my brother lives. Perhaps Virginia beckons!! "

"Being intrigued by Spain and its culture, food, and people my whole life, your description of it in your letter to your wife made me almost feel like I was there -- smelling the food, experiencing the beauty of El Greco's paintings, seeing the close families as generations enjoy life together. So wonderful! My husband and I must plan to travel there in our retirement. Thank you for sharing!"
October 2012

"Dear Mary, Be sure to remember Spain. Once you go there every other place is not as special! I don't think I have ever talked to anyone who disliked Spain. But remember - as in any country, Spain is more than big cities. It is the people you will enjoy most."

"Me and my wife also started our tour of Spain in Valencia, took the train to Madrid and visited Toledo and El Escorial and stayed a few days in Cullera with a friend. Our 400 year association with Spain, coming from the Philippines, was awe inspiring as we see the country that has given us our religion and culture alive and well. The Spanish people also reminded us of our own people. Our visit was also in March. The churches also resembled some of our older churches."
October 2012

"It is amazing how the two cultures have almost become one. I must say that I have known many Filipinos as shipmates in my Navy days -- and how warm and generous you all are too."

" I always say that my heart is in Spain, my soul in Sevilla (my native city) and my brain in the USA. I have been in the USA since 1962 with the exception of two years when I had to leave the country until I finally got my immigrant visa (the famous green card). I have deep roots in this beautiful country, that I love (10 grandchildren and 5 great-grand), but I still miss greatly "mi Sevilla". I came to the USA to become an specialized MD and become a surgeon, which I did. I really loved you writings about my old country, you are a good writer.

God Bless,
October 2012

"Thank you Emilio, you became a surgeon in America! What an important gift Sevilla gave us in the person of you. I am glad to help bring back fond memories and recollections of your roots."

"My husband Paul and I have just returned from a 26 day visit to Spain. He too was stationed there in 1968. We were married in the British Consul's office in Bilboa in 1970. Both of our children were born in Torrejon AFB hospital (though 8 years apart and different tours of duty). We too feel a deep connection to the country and the people, so deep, in fact, that we return each year to visit. Sometimes it is to visit our Spanish/Basque "family" or to explore an area that we do not know intimately. As I said in one of our blogs, Spain is like an onion, you can keep peeling away the layers and find something new and fresh every time. We also re-visited Toledo this September. I remember back in the 70s exploring that wonderful city. An amazing experience and it was again, wonderful. For us visiting Spain is like going home again. Congratulations on your award from the Spanish government, it is well deserved. We enjoy your posts so much, thank you. It keeps us going until we return to our beloved Spain. Next year a bunch of retired GIs are meeting in Elizondo, Navarra for a reunion. Gorramendi was a communication site on top of a mountain. The people in the village were so kind to the boys in the 60s and 70s and still talk about them. We have advised them (old GIs) to take a photo of themselves when they were young so they will be recognized! "
October 2012

"How nice to hear from you. Isn't it uncanny how we feel we are coming home when we return to Spain? Of course rationally speaking we are not coming home, but flying away from home to be there. I have never felt that way about any other place I have been. I am sure you know what I mean. Abrazos to you and your family, "

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Cartas de Valencia

a little boyHace poco estaba hojeando algunas cartas antiguas y sin esperarlo me encontré con una nota que le había enviado a mi esposa desde España nada menos que en el año 1965. Me hizo mucho ilusión poder revivir aquellas mis primeras experiencias en España y me llamó poderosamente la atención el hecho de que mis primeras impresiones se siguen confirmando aún hoy en día, casi cincuenta años más tarde.

Desde los años sesenta mi familia y yo hemos disfrutado de grandes momentos con cientos de familias españolas e incluso vivimos durante dos años en uno de los pueblos de la comarca jerezana de Andalucía. Sin embargo, y por raro que parezca, mi cariño por España tiene sus raíces en mi infancia, mucha antes de que ni siquiera me topase con el primer español.

Yo era un niño que pasaba mucho tiempo solo en casa después del colegio. Me entretenía escuchando Jazz, hojeando revistas y libros de arte en particular(en aquella época no había televisión). Me sentía especialmente atraído por un hermoso libro dedicado a la obra de un pintor místico español, El Greco. Su manera de representar la dimensión espiritual del ser humano y la profundidad emocional de su visión calaron profundamente en mi.

Sin embargo, no sería hasta dieciséis años más tarde que tendría mi primer contacto directo con la gente y la cultura de España. En 1965, los españoles estaban aún recuperándose de una terriblemente sangrienta guerra civil y de años de hambre y privaciones. A pesar de aquello, me fijé en lo fuerte que eran sus lazos familiares, al igual que el amor hacia sus hijos. Para mi era un placer encontrarme entre ellos.

Era yo un recién estrenado capellán de marina. Ruth y yo acabábamos de casarnos y planeábamos instalarnos en Washington DC durante unos dos o tres años. Sin embargo, a última hora fui destinado a un escuadrón de un destructor en Virginia para sustituir a un capellán enfermo. Fueron unas noticias cuanto menos impactantes. Ruth debería permanecer sola en una ciudad desconocida y yo tendría que unirme a la tripulación del que sería mi primer barco de la Marina para una travesía de seis meses, tan sólo después de ocho semanas de matrimonio.

Durante mi despliegue, mi forma de comunicarme con Ruth era a la vieja usanza, por correo postal. Estábamos en una época muy anterior a la comunicación instantánea y a las llamadas telefónicas prácticamente gratis. El otro día encontré por casualidad la primera carta de mi travesía en la que le hablaba a Ruth de mi entusiasmo por España y su gente. Era una carta con una cantidad inmensa de detalles (¡Hace 50 años ya me gusta escribir!) que me ofreció una mirada al pasado. Voy a compartir alguno de esos detalles con ustedes a continuación.

Aquel mes de marzo, después de una travesía por el Atlántico norte, los cuatro buques de la división del destructor atracaron en el Puerto de Valencia. Con gran suerte para nosotros fue durante la semana de Fallas. Celebradas anualmente, estas fiestas son un derroche de comida y bebida, de atronadores espectáculos pirotécnico y de enormes figuras satíricas hechas a mano que son quemadas por sus propios creadores en el último día de Fallas, durante la festividad de San José. Es un acontecimiento increíblemente ruidoso. ¡Los jóvenes marineros estaban encantados!

Un día, en un bar de tapas del puerto, mis pensamientos me llevaron a mi infancia. Me dije a mi mismo: “Aquí estoy en España. Esta es mi oportunidad de encontrarme con El Greco cara a cara, por así decirlo.” Así que dejé las Fallas, cogí un Talgo con dirección a Madrid y al Museo del Prado. Se trataba solamente de un trayecto de dos horas. No me encontraba en absoluto preparado para lo que iba a sucederme. Fue una experiencia que me marcó para siempre. Le escribí a Ruth:
boys walking in a Palm Sunday procession
Cuando entré en el Museo del Prado y me encontré con salas y más salas llenas de obras de El Greco, me embargo la emoción y no podía sepárame de sus óleos. Fue sin duda una experiencia religiosa. Estaba tan extasiado, tan embelesado por esta experiencia que la única cosa que podía hacer era conducir hasta Toledo para ver más de su obra, par ver la ciudad en la que vivió, la catedral en la que rezó y todo el entrono que dio origen a un hombre tan profundo.

Así pues, mis compañeros y yo cogimos un taxi hasta Toledo. Fue una visión increíble. Le escribí a Ruth:

Era como si El Greco lo hubiese pintado. Era como volver atrás 400 años en el tiempo. Literalmente no había coches por ningún lado, ni casi electricidad, ni calefacción, no se hablaba Inglés. Había una gran plaza llena de dignos campesinos castellanos, estrechos caminos de tierra machacados por siglos de uso que serpenteaban entre las casas de piedra y los portones.

Durante siglos Toledo fue el corazón político e intelectual de España. Está situada sobre una serie de colinas y rodeada por una inmensa muralla. Los romanos la ocuparon hasta el año 190 de nuestra era, convirtiéndose entonces en sede del reino visigodo. Unos dos siglos después los musulmanes tomaron Toledo y la gobernaron durante 370 años, hasta que durante la Reconquista los cristianos volvieron a recuperar la ciudad en 1082. Toledo es el alma de España, y le escribí a mi esposa con gran entusiasmo:

Toda la ciudad es una inmensa colina caliza con edificios de color ocre. La catedral es la más conmovedora de todo Europa por lo que a mi respecta. Está repleta de tesoros donados por las figuras más relevantes de la historia. La carpintería es exquisita en el diseño y en la tallado, al igual que en su encarnación del misticismo hispano. El retablo situado detrás del altar se eleva unos 15 metros (50 pies) de altura o más y es una intricada talla que representa la vida de Cristo en un estilo gótico florido español. Era tan increíble que literalmente me hizo postrarme de rodillas.
inside the Toledo cathedral
Aún hoy en día, sigo viendo esa España, aunque nos adentremos en el siglo XXI. El espíritu místico de El Greco que descubrí de niño es lo que hace que Toledo sea sagrado para mi. La ubicación del alma de España está entre Iglesias, sinagogas y mezquitas construidas por sus habitantes a lo largo de los siglos. Lo que es más, hoy en día, noto ese valor intrínseco en mis amigos españoles. Es una espiritualidad que alcanza a todos por igual.

El pasado mes de abril Ruth y yo volvimos a Toledo. Esta vez entre el ajetreo y el bullicio de cientos de turistas y habitantes de la ciudad. Nos encontramos con un grupo de 80 niños cantores que habían venido de Japón para dar un concierto de música sacra en la catedral. A la mañana siguiente, nos unimos a ellos y a otros cientos de fieles en una procesión con hojas de palma que recorría las empedradas calles que rodean la catedral.

Estábamos entre gentes procedentes de toda España que se había reunido para celebrar el Domingo de Ramos. Toledo ya no era un lugar de caminos de tierra sinuosos, sino una discreta pero esplendida ciudad cuya plaza de Zocodover estaba rebosante de jóvenes en sus vacaciones de Semana Santa.

No se trata, ya no sólo en Toledo, sino también en muchas otras ciudades de España, de simples edificios sino de hijos, de padres, de abuelos, de personas de todas las generaciones que continúan manteniendo las tradiciones sin que estas se vean afectadas por los tiempos de bonanza o dificultad. Tengo una gran fe en el pueblo español, sus cimientos son fuertes. Sus afectuosas familias, sus venerados hijos y sus raíces espirituales siguen siendo su ancla. Desde aquel primer día que puse un pie fuera del barco, me sentí como en casa. Estoy sumamente agradecido por la cultura y por las gentes que marcan una influencia tan profunda en mi vida y por la oportunidad de corresponderles a través de La Tienda.



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