In 1996, giddy with accomplishment---I had just graduated from Brooklyn College---I landed in Madrid, Spain. In the great tradition of Americans since the days of Edith Wharton and Henry James, I had gifted myself a duel coming of age/job well done trip to Europe.
Madrid, my third European city since I’d gotten a passport, was not the only city I was planning to tackle in Spain nor was I alone. My friend Joan was with me for her first European outing and we were on a mission to hit not only Madrid but also Barcelona, Toledo, Seville, Grenada, and Cádiz! For four weeks, it was going to be all things Spain, full stop. Basta!
I am proud to say, fueled by café con leche, beer, wine, tapas, and long afternoon naps we nailed it. But that lengthy, wondrous trip almost never happened.
Back in the good/ bad old days, pre-EU, pre-financial collapse, Spain was mostly known for bullfighting---which is just awful by the way---beautiful people, gorgeous beaches, great wine, and flamenco guitar, oh, and the Basque Separatist war.
What’s this? Who’s that?
The Basque Conflict, also known as the Spain–ETA conflict, was an armed and political conflict from 1959 to 2011 between Spain and the Basque National Liberation Movement, a group of social and political Basque organizations which sought independence from Spain and France.
This sounds very smarty pants---thanks https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basque_conflict!---but no, I didn’t know anything about the conflict before touching down. Little old me blundered onto the scene after an eight-hour flight completely ignorant of the political situation in Spain like the myopic American tourist I am…was…am...was… but I was quickly schooled. I got a lesson not only on geopolitical gerrymandering but also one on one of its many side effects. Namely, public safety.
Of course, public safety is always important but never more so than when unknown persons lead daily, weekly, and monthly armed skirmishes in and around a country. So, much like London in the 90s, where there were virtually no trashcans readily available for public use because militant Irish groups would create makeshift bombs out of them, security was very tight in Spain in general and in places like the airport in particular. Understandable. And it might even have occurred to me if I had known anything about the Basque Conflict. But again…I didn’t.
So there I was tired but excited to be in the Mediterranean again, patiently waiting my turn to go through security, only vaguely aware of the strangely large number of SWAT-y looking men and women with huge guns and dogs scattered around the Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport. Remember this is 1996, pre-September 11, so I was not conditioned to seeing such serious, military style weaponry in public spaces. My excitement about what awaited on the other side far outweighed my curiosity about the guns. Nope, I was utterly disinterested in them, my thoughts firmly on navigating baggage claim, a taxi, hotel check-in, and my first, but certainly not my last icy glass of sangria. And then my turn came and I stepped up to be swept by the magic wand and I beeped. I beeped loudly. I beeped steadily. I stepped back and checked my hair. Beep. I stepped back and removed my earrings. Beep. Beep. My friend Joan began to giggle nervously. I removed the change from my pockets. Beeeeep. And then I was removed.
To my unending consternation, I am a heavy sweater. A life-long heavy sweater. I sweat like a boy, like a dude, especially under pressure or scrutiny. Have you ever had hundreds of pairs of eyes on you, in a foreign country, with a weak command of the language, while black? I have, and let me say, on that beautiful summer morning as I attempted to enter Spain and kept going off like a Geiger counter one time, two times, three times and more, I began to sweat like a quarterback during the last quarter of the Super Bowl with two minutes left on the clock. And then the guys with the big guns came---I know what you’re thinking: NOW I notice them!---and I was being told to step into a ominous black box. BEEP.
As I was being walked over, I frantically pulled out every Spanish word I have ever learned. Thankfully, ꜟYO QUERIO UNA MUJER! ꜟYO QUERIO UNA MUJER! ꜟYO QUERIO UNA MUJER!, were four of them.
My garbled high school/college Spanish was comprehensible and I got a woman agent. Beneath the dim bulb, behind the heavy black curtain, inside of an 8 X 6 privacy box, I was patted down. Welcome to Madrid! Once again, my pockets and my hair were checked. Nothing except Beep. Then dropped the bib of my overalls, up went my tank top which exposed my navel ring and we both breathed a sigh of relief until…Beep.
I started to sweat, okay, let’s be honest, I had never stopped sweating. I was a slippery ball of fear as I ran through any and everything that could possibly be setting off the wand. Nothing sprang to my overheating mind except all of those terrifying movies about Americans traveling abroad who get caught up in the judicial system of a foreign country. Moisture, sweat or tears?, began to block out the points of light that were able to break through the curtain. I was not ready for my Kate Beckinsale close up!
Wide-eyed and imploring, I again attempted to use Spanish better suited to restaurants than airport pat downs to proclaim my ignorance/innocence when suddenly the curtain was twitched apart and artificially bright light flooded the privacy box. The female airport security agent and I were motioned to step out and then suddenly I was free. Just like that. I didn’t ask questions in English or Spanish. I grabbed Joan and scuttled off to the nearest bathroom where I took several deep breathes, splashed water on my face, and then turned to Joan and asked,
“What the fuck was that?”
It turns out, Joan, not knowing what to do, had turned to a lovely man, a native of Madrid, who we had become friendly with on the flight over. He volunteered to stepped in and spoke to airport security. I don’t know if the guy was a Madrid mover-and-shaker or just spoke their language, but he convinced them that I was no threat and certainly not a Basque separatist sympathizer on holiday to case the joint and report back, and they let me go. It was that simple. No more Beep. No more black box. No more “Brokedown Palace” remake nightmares. I was free to get on with my Mediterranean vacation.
And we did. We ate, drank, danced to the Grease soundtrack all over Spain, and were merry. It wasn’t until days later, after I had shaken off the “what-ifs” and the “oh fucks” that it finally dawned on me what all the noise had been about. Wait for it…STEEL-TOED BOOTS. Yes! Steel-toed boots!
In the 90’s, well into the aughts, I didn’t go anywhere without my steel-toed boots and it was those beloved shit-kickers that almost walked me into a Spanish prison.
I have always said when you wear Doc Martins you only meet the best people!
Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back in September for the answer to whether white sangria is the cure for the common bruised ego.
And remember, be kind to one another, keep on traveling with a feminist eye, keep on being feminist AF!
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