imageMy first trip to Segovia was with my four year old daughter and it was immediately evident that children were adored in Spain.  If she fell on the cobblestone street, any passerby would run to her aid with candy to make the hurt go away.  Most Spaniards explain this loving devotion in the context of the low birthrate in Spain.  There are simply not enough children to go around so all young are doted on in equal measure.

Spain’s fertility rate of 1.35 (in 2011) is one of the lowest in the world.  Late marriages and expensive mortgages play a role as young people frequently live at home until their early thirties to save for their first apartment (70 percent of Spaniards own their home).  Social advances made by women, with men lagging behind, are also a factor.  Although women can earn what men earn, these women’s male partners do not participate in the childcare and housework.  The socialist party, in power from 2004 to 2011, won two legislations to remedy inequality in the home and the low fertility rate.  Since 2005 married couples sign a mutual agreement to share housework, child rearing, and care of elderly family members. Since 2007 mothers receive an incentive bonus of almost $3500 for every child born.  In addition, maternity leave is as generous in Spain as in other European countries. The birthrate has risen slightly from 1.1 in 1998.

Despite grim stastistics, here in Segovia there are children everywhere you look.  We arrived for the Titirimundi Festival, an annual puppet festival for young and old.  It was Sunday and in the plazas and paseos there were armadas of strollers.  Children not in strollers were as well dressed but otherwise savages of the first order.  Mothers do not scold, they coo.

Children have freedoms in Spain unknown in the urban centers of the U.S.  In Segovia they run through the medieval streets without restraint because there are no cars.  On weekends they stay up to the wee hours with their parents in outdoor cafes and bars.  They are given every conceivable snack during these long outings.  Most of it is junk food.  Young students walking home from school for the big meal during the week form rowdy packs.  Buttoned and zipped up neatly in  school uniforms, they use profanity, do not heed pedestrians, and eat junk food.

On my daughter’s first morning with the babysitter, a four hour stint, she received a quantity of candy sufficient for a month, plus donuts and juice boxes, three new bouncy balls, and a bag of little watermelon gum balls.  She also met the babysitter’s grandmother who invited her to return for lunch another day.  The grandmother would make spaghetti because my daughter had requested it.

Spanish hospitality is legendary and my daughter is the lucky recipient.  At the dinner table in our Segovia homestay she says please and thank you in her rudimentary Spanish.  Our hostess tells us she expects this of her five grandchildren, but that the kids’ parents do not. I tell her what another Segoviana told me: Spanish children are the most spoiled on earth.  Then she carefully explains the difference between “mimar” and “consentir:” to nurture and fuss over  vs. to indulge and to allow (bad behavior).

Even as I write this I can hear our homestay hostess invite my daughter to watch cartoons with her because she knows that I am writing.  I am grateful.

El pan candeal

I sat down for the big meal in my Segovia home stay:  fish, potatoes, green salad, fruit and bread.  Jetlagged, I bit into the bread, and now totally alert, I looked at the loaf on the table.  It was round with a crossed top.  This was the bread of Castile that we ate every day in Herencia and that I somehow missed on subsequent trips to Spain over thirty years.

“El pan candeal” is a dense, firm white bread made from an ancient wheat (from which it derives its name, “candeal”) mixed with very little water and only left to rise once.  It has a soft, tasteless compactness which is pleasing because of its velvet-like texture.

In the distant past this artesan bread was made at home.  In the recent past, but not today, it was made in wood-fired ovens.  Women, who did their food shopping daily, made their last stop at the neighborhood bakery.  Traditionally, the bread sat on top of the tablecloth and was cut there for the family members.  They would then leave their bread slice on the table next to their plate.  The denseness of this bread made it ideal for sopping up broths and stew juices.

In Spain bread is served for the big meal, and also for breakfast, lunch and dinner in various forms: “pan tostado,” “bocadillo,” and “migas” or literally “crumbs” made from day-old bread which is crumbled then fried with olive oil and garlic.

Paca, my homestay grandmother in Herencia made the big meal virtually every day leaving her daughter free to do the shopping and housework. But Paca rarely joined us at the table. I never entered Paca’s kitchen, but from the hallway I would catch glimpses of her sitting at the table, alone, masticating dough balls she made by digging out the white center of the bread and rolling la masa between her fingers.  This was her custom, rather than join us at the table, perhaps established during the 1940s when much of Spain suffered a diet of water and bread in the decade after the Civil War.

I wrote this poem for Paca.



Bread at the table,

round with a crossed top,

like scars on the fields


of Castilla La Mancha.

The crusty meseta

feeds grain


to curved, wood ovens

in tiny, white pueblos.

Windmills circle


between land and sky.


and rosary bead


curl Paca’s hands.




I feel conflicted about what happened to Herencia and other small towns like it across Spain.

My home stay father was a shepard, an unexotic profession in 1983 rural Spain.  He rose at 3am, we could hear him coughing  before his first cigarette, and rarely came home until nightfall.  His tanned, wrinkled face told the story of his intense work life.

The family had moved to Logrono when I returned to Spain in 1986.  The father and two sons worked in automobile manufacturing.  Their move from Herencia to a medium-sized, industrialized city like Logrono was indicative of Spain’s leap towards the future in its wish to leave the past behind.

Today eight percent of Spain’s total population lives in the country.  A quick check of Herencia’s population shows that it holds steady at 7,000 residents.  There has been no change in the town’s size since 1983? This would refute the trend of the flight from the countryside to urban centers. Taken in context of the total population growth since 1983, 38 million compared to 46 million today, it’s surprising that Herencia has not increased in size.  But fewer than five million people live rurally in Spain meaning that Herencia is on the verge of negative population growth.

What will happen to these small towns?  The nostalgia I feel is not misplaced  yet I have a sense of guilt.  I do not wish for a past in which social roles are inherited from old paradigms (Herencia means “inheritance”).  But perhaps in Spain’s headlong rush into the future we lost something.  The identity of Spain might depend on nurturing these small towns.  Something is inherited from a sense of place.

Here in Castilla-Leon where Sevilla is located there is a campaign afoot, Tierra de Sabor.  To support local farmers, ranchers and winemakers, restaurants in Segovia serve dishes using guaranteed local foods and wines.  The value of these products is the rural life, with all its customs both old and new, they support.

Despite my criticism of social roles in 1983 Herencia, I observed that life was harder for my homestay family in Logrono.  My grandmother no longer attended mass twice a day, my mother walked further for goods and services, the men worked punishing hours in the factory.  Only Clara got ahead, so to speak.  She attended a pre-university institute.

It still bothers me to visualize the displacement of my shepard father from open, table plains walking with the sheep to an indoor, mechanized work environment.  Maybe I am romanticizing his former life, and Spain before, but I do not think so.  This is where the conflict lies:  to wish for the past is to dismiss the many advances Spain has made since 1983.  Yet I think we can have both and maybe Tierra de Sabor is a merging of the past and present.


I arrived to Herencia, La Mancha (population, 7,000) with a blow dryer, curling iron, and shaved legs.  In 1983, the year of my first contact with Spain, Michael Jackson’s Thriller played in the town’s “discotecas” where we would dance nightly.  Yet this was clearly a different world.  Unlike me, young women did not smoke, cuss, drive or shave their legs.  Few young women, and certainly not married or widowed women, wore pants.

The Franco era had ended less than a decade before yet a restricted life for women continued with little change in Herencia.  To put it quite simply, unmarried women did not leave the house unescorted.  And a suitable chaperone was needed.  In my case, I could leave the house with my homestay brother, a year older than me, or my homestay mother or grandmother.  Clara, a year younger than me, was not an option because she was unmarried too.

My homestay family was exceedingly hospitable and kind to me.  However I do remember the tense meal when the father learned that I had spent the morning with a male family cousin, unchaperoned.  The topic came up when I asked him if I could go to a party with said cousin.  The father exploded and I learned new boundaries.  I was seventeen.

Today I appreciate this early education in social mores for women in 1983 rural Herencia because I am better able to understand Spain’s past.  With the exception of the years just before the Civil War, Spain’s Second Republic, and the Civil War itself, any movement towards progress and modernization did not usually include women.  Fiction writer and essayist, Emilia Pardo Bazán, used the simile of the steady north star to describe the Spanish female role in a sea of change that marked the nineteenth century western world.

After 1939, regressive social policies made it difficult for women to effect change for themselves.  Carmen Martín Gaite, in Los usos amorosos de la posguerra, has explained well the rationing of bread and sex.  During the Franco years married couples were encouraged to have children however this pleasure was to be reserved for reproduction only.  The model of love changed dramatically after 1975 and, even if I do sometimes critique Spanish society for being too permissive (Almodóvar’s films come to mind), both men and women have benefited from more tolerant attitudes towards human relationships.

Youth culture predicts the future.  In 1983 Herencia, despite the outdated roles for young women, the young people I met were on the move.  They could see, hear and taste the social transformation taking over Spain’s capital just a few hours away.  By the end of the stay, my female friends were wearing jeans, shaving their legs, learning to drive and thinking about leaving Herencia.  It was a start.

The Two Spains


imageMy daughter and I visited Cuellar, a town of almost 10,000.  We went for the castle and the food.  I did not expect to see the signs of social unrest that were present.  Small towns in Spain have been abandoned especially by the young.  Cuellar showed signs of abandonment: empty store fronts and crumbling buildings from old Spain. I was unprepared for the 15M propaganda on the streets of Cuellar. The economic crisis in Spain has sparked a social movement organized by various groups:  the unemployed, the retirees without pensions, the students without prospects, and the otherwise disenfrachised (together they go by “los indignados” or “los nini,” the last name referring to those who neither work or study).  These groups movilized to protest lack of government action, coupled with deep cuts in government spending, in May of 2011 calling for a nationwide occupation of city squares.  The call, if not the results, was successful and a second occupation was announced for October 2011.  This time it went global via social networks; the U.S Occupation movement was an example (who go by the name the ninety-nine percenters).

In Cuellar an anniversary of 15M was organized for May 12. I would not have guessed that there were enough young people in Cuellar to hold a rally for global change.  Like the ninety-nine percenters, “los indignados” are responding to the economic gap between the elite rich and the rest of us.  Spaniards, especially youth who face 55 percent unemployment nationwide, feel this gap.   They blame the politicians and financial corruption.

In Cuellar I was reminded of the two Spains, a term coined by early twentieth century intellectuals.  These thinkers actively pursued the new Spain based on democratic principles.  But they lived in the old Spain, a backwards country for its lack of industrialization, liberalism, progressive education, and agrarian reform.

The castle in Cuellar tells the story of feudalism which existed in some parts of Spain right up to Franco’s death in 1975.  In the past the duke, although frequently absent, received the proceeds from the crops harvested (in this case, chicory) by the laborers in the field who had no land of their own.  The middle class, which was tiny, was made up of businesses which supported the agriculture such as milling.  Shop owners were also counted among the middle class.  Everyone else served at the pleasure of the duke.  Even the town mayor served the duke; he administered his properties and collected earnings made from the land.

A few days before my daughter and I visited El Palacio de La Granja de San Idelfonso, a summer palace built by Felipe V, the first Bourbon king.  To provide the glassware and the crystals for the chandeliers, the king ordered a glassmaking factory.  All the work and resources in this factory served the royal family.

Back in Segovia I spied a banner that read, “Abolition of the monarchy” posted by a worker’s union, CNT.  This smaller political movement is calling for the end of the monarchy  (Spain has only not been a monarchy three times: for a short period after 1868 during the First Republic,  during the Second Republic and the Civil War fought to defend it, 1931–1939, and during the Franco regime, 1939-1975).  Faced with austerity cuts to social services including pensions to pay the debt Spaniards are understandably concerned about the royal family’s spending of taxpayer money.  King Juan Carlos, sometimes called the architect of Spain’s democratic transition, has fallen out of favor.  But didn’t  the pressure he applied, including on Francoist officials who went along with the democratic transition in exchange for amnesty, put an end to the two Spains?  He was meant to continue the model of government put in place by Franco, a totalitarian order with few civil liberties.  Thanks to the king, Spaniards today have freedom of speech and assembly.