It begins in Salamanca. It’s not exactly where I thought it was going to begin, but it’s a more auspicious starting point than Villafranca, I guess. The other passengers around me are reshuffling their seats on the bus. The lady on the seat next to me scrolls blindly through her Instagram feed. Flighty pigeons patrol the bus station roof and a few fluffy clouds pepper the sky. Suitcases roll in, buses roll out and people chat about what they’ll be having for lunch. It’s just another day in Salamanca – but not for me. Today’s the day I find my family.
It’s hard to say exactly how I’m feeling right now. Three days ago, when Rafael called, I was nervous. So nervous I waited until the call went through to my answerphone so I could deal with the matter calmly and indirectly. I’d already gone through the business of psyching myself up a couple of weeks ago, when I first made plans to visit. Spurred on by Coco, and some of Bella’s heartbreaking family stories, I decided I could wait no longer. Then Rafael’s sudden hospitalisation put our reunion on hold and I had to wait.
Now I’m racing across the sunny fields of old Castile with the cathedral of Salamanca shrinking into the distance, and my new quest – perhaps the greatest quest of my life so far – has begun.
The snows on the highest peaks of the Guadarrama seem as smooth as flour. San Rafael, the quiet town that harboured me once when I came down tired and hungry from a sixty kilometre trek across the mountains, looked warm and unfamiliar in the sunlight. I only remember it in the dark of the night. I have left the granite boulders and high sierras of old Castile behind me. Madrid stretches out across the plain with queer mountains of tower blocks and skyscrapers. The Buddenbrooks film they have playing on the monitor is drawing to its sad and depressing finale, a world away from the hopeful sunshine outside. Nineteenth-century Germany and sunlit Madrid could hardly be further apart.
I see a magpie. I count to ten. A second appears. I breathe again.
Every quest has a dragon to be slain, and today’s is Atocha Station. On the bus I briefly entertained the idea of a small paseo in the Retiro, should I find my way through the station easily. It’s as well that I didn’t. It took me several bewildered attempts to navigate the terminus. Atocha makes London King’s Cross seem like the Dunkeld and Birnam railway station. Stairs criss-crossing each other in all directions. Media distancia here, larga distancia there, high-speed AVE lines elsewhere. The icing on the cake: the platform is not revealed until minutes before the train arrives, or, in this case, withheld until the thing is just pulling in. I was a bag of nerves back there and I’m not proud of it. I love travel, but I don’t like cities. I never have. And it’ll only be harder on the way back when I have half the time to get from Atocha to Estación Sur. But the dragon is slain, and I’m headed south into New Castile and the immense emptiness of La Mancha.
Where do I begin? What questions do I ask the only man on Earth who knew my grandfather when he was still alive? It’s hard to know where to start. Rafael may be my first cousin twice removed, and his descendants more distant still, but they’re all that’s left of my family and I have to find them. I have to know. It’s what’s been driving this whole Spanish adventure from the very beginning. My grandfather José… When was he born? What was he like? Is there anything left of him in his hometown, or has he passed, like the Moorish kings, into memory? I can only hope for some small detail, a shred of the faintest of proofs. In truth I do not really know what awaits me in Villarrobledo, but I can wait no longer.
Some etymologists believe the Roman word “Hispania”, from which we derive the modern name of Spain, came via an old Punic-Hebrew cognate “i-shfania”, meaning “Island of Rabbits”. The rabbits are dying out by degrees – I haven’t seen one in months – so perhaps “Island of Magpies” might be a better term today. The kites and the swallows come and go, but I see magpies wherever I go in this country. I used to associate them with the oak tree that grew on the verge by my house when I was growing up. Nowadays I think of Spain when I see them. I’m not sure where we get the word “magpie” from, but the Spanish urraca is supposedly onomatopoeic, like the Arabic ‘āqāq. There was even a Spanish queen called Urraca once. I wonder why they called her that?
The earth is red. We’re rolling into Alcázar de San Juan. Three stops remain. Just to spite me, a pair of rabbits watched our train pass by from the sleepers on the opposite line. Hispania lives on.
The first words I heard on entering Villarrobledo were not in Spanish at all, but in American English. I’m not sure whether that marred my first experience or not. Villarrobledo looks like a lot like Villafranca, picked up and dropped in the middle of La Mancha. And I thought Extremadura was flat… I’ve never seen such horizons.
The hotel Rafael arranged for me has everything I need, except the little zing of extra courage I could do with right now. To be fair, there’s probably plenty of courage in the couple of Dueros I brought as presents for my family, but if I can soldier through twenty-two years of teetotal trials, I can manage this one sober. I’ve had a shower, freshened up and put today’s date in my journal. There’s nothing left to do but to step out of the hotel room and finish my quest. Some food wouldn’t go amiss, but as it’s Jueves Santo, I doubt anywhere will be open. Besides, needs must: there’s a greater cause at stake. Grandfather, this is for you. It always has been.
Ps. I’ve forward-dated this post, so by the time you read this, I’ll have met my family already. I’ll keep you posted.