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the diary thing 
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07.02.00
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 salamanca
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I'M FEELING PRETTY ROUGH when Dennis joins me at breakfast. I was up late talking with K., and couldn't get to sleep for hours -- between the jet-lag, the drinking, and my grief over my cat, I'm not doing too well today.

"Good morning, pisstank," Dennis says, jovially.

I fix him with a pitiful stare. "You seem chipper."

"I feel like shit."

We share a few chuckles from the night before, then Dennis gets serious.

"You know that Helen is a lesbian, right?" he says in a hushed, confidential tone.

"Uh, yeah."

"Well, maybe we should watch ourselves."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean maybe we shouldn't call each other, you know, fucking faggots --" he lowers his voice for these words, "-- or stuff like that. I mean, we might hurt her feelings or --"

I don't think Dennis has to worry. We've been crude with each other, sure, but nothing's been said that would sound so horrible. We all have gay friends at home, and we haven't said anything here that we won't say there.

"Come on, Den. Don't worry about it. I think Helen's a good sport, and I don't think we've been out of line."

"I just don't want to offend her or anything."

"Look, she lives out in Brandon, she deals with hog farmers. I don't think there's anything we can say that would shock her."

Helen's been an especially good egg, considering that she's a vegetarian, and she's been presented with plate after plate of dead pig, cow and sheep since she got off the plane. There aren't too many options for vegetarians in Castille, and she's gamely choked down dinner for four nights without complaining. While she's hardly joined in our hoary descent into beery guyness, she's hardly looked at us with anything like humourlessness or disdain. More often than not it's been Fernando who's cast a hairy eye at us, and we're grateful that he's gone till Madrid.

"I just don't want to make her uncomfortable," Dennis says over his coffee and fruit.

I'm genuinely touched by Den's solicitude, considering his de facto position as ringleader in our sub-group of testosterone-addled hispanophiles. Nevertheless, I don't think we have to worry about Helen. I'm more concerned about the professional travel writers, Chris and Angela, who might think our disdain for note-taking and less-then-reverent attitudes toward our tour guides a tad boorish. My hunch actually proves correct.


 
"How strange, how impossible Salamanca might seem to any one coming from Oxford or Cambridge! How splendid is the courage that is willing to suffer such poverty for the sake of learning! Is it visible anywhere in England? Poor splendid bachelor, you are one of the heroes that Spain keeps ever in an abject world."
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- Cities of Spain (1925)
Edward Hutton

 
Day five -- things get a bit out of control. Our little tour starts to resemble The Canterbury Tales. More architecture.

BACK ONTO THE BUS and into downtown Salamanca. We meet today's guide, Yolanda, by the "new" cathedral. Hutton doesn't have much nice to say about Salamanca's gothic cathedral, not surprisingly, preferring the older, romanesque building adjacent to it: "...it is really only the old Romanesque building, quite dismantled now, that is not disappointing; the newer pretentious Gothic church being full of ineffectual work, overloaded with ornament and later decoration."

The old cathedral was built in the 12th century, while the newer one dates from the 16th, and I have to say I agree with Hutton, again. Yolanda takes us into the new church, and I can't help but note that, compared to Burgos, the later additions in baroque and neo-classical stone and plaster integrate themselves into the gothic rather more skillfully, though nevertheless incongruously. The open space in the new cathedral is broken up by the usual choir stall and screened rows of pews, no clear view possible across its vast interior. The dome at the top of the transept is beautifully decorated, but rises storeys above the congregation, and seems absurdly placed so far aloft, impossible to admire except with a craned neck. Hutton is scathing: "...a magnificent failure covered with decorations, content with its own grandiose immensity: happiest at night under the stars that are powerless to discover its insincerity, its real vulgarity..."

With an aesthetic that fostered the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, Hutton sings the praises of the romanesque church now stuck on the side of the gothic one, looking like a yellow stone tumour though, in actual fact, it's quite the other way around. 

"Cruciform in design, it originally consisted of nave and aisles with five bays, three eastern apses, and a dome or lantern over the crossing, a thing very lovely and original, if we consider it carefully, lifted into the sky on pillars, between which the sunlight falls, as among the carved lines of the windows where the shadows are so cool, and the wind sings to itself in the long hot days." 

The man can really go on some.

 
in the new cathedral
in the new cathedral
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

in the old cathedral
in the old cathedral


SALAMANCA WAS DECLARED a UNESCO World Heritage site, a distinction whose particular significance seems gloriously vague, but the result is that the town remains well-preserved. The old cathedral, in fact, might be in better condition now than when Hutton saw it. The university is probably in much better shape than when he visited: 

"It is a rather sad world you discover in the little old college...Children as of old, for nothing seems to change in old Spain, sparely fill the benches that should hold undergraduates. Never have I seem a ruin so terrible."

Today the university is booming, thanks largely to the thousands of international students who pass through it each year for advanced Spanish courses. The buildings and streets of the university are well-preserved, and the older classrooms, where St. Ignatius Loyola, Barca de la Calderon and Miguel de Unamuno studied and taught, are maintained as museum spaces. It's strange though, to walk through these ancient streets and feel much as one does in any university town -- besieged by so much youth and youthful energy pent up in the loose discipline of modern education. 

Our guide, Yolanda, casually regales us with tales of medieval university life in a claxon voice. On one stairway in an old building, she points out the allegorical carvings on the stairwell that illustrate the trials of the student in earlier days.

"Here is shown the progress of the student to knowledge. At the bottom of the stairs you see the student, and at the top is knowledge and wisdom. In the middle you see the temptation in the form of the prostitutes."

Salamanca had, in the form of the Barrio Chino, a thriving whore's quarter, much frequented by students and teachers alike. There were rituals that involved top students writing their names on the walls in a mixture of bulls' blood and olive oil ( a tradition preserved now for notables visiting the school), dunkings in the river for failures, and a reward for finishing exams in the form of a "salty pie".

"Here we have the street where the oldest prostitutes in the town lived. It is called, how you say, the Street of the Three Coños...?"

"Coños. Cunts." Dennis offers, happily.

"Yes, the Street of the Three Cunts. This is where the oldest prostitutes in the town lived." Yolanda shouts out to us, and the nearby square. How does she know about this? I don't imagine it's in the guidebooks.

"I prefer Canadians with these tours," Yolanda tells Marguerita later. "Americans get very offended with some of these things."

In another square, Yolanda is telling us about the carved frieze -- a delicate lacework of stone that runs around a three-sided square near the cathedral. Several details are pointed out, and the group dutifully scribbles in their notepads and takes pictures. 

"I would like you to look at the detail near the center of the frieze." Her voice rings out over the square. "There you will see the figure of a naked man touching his masculine member."

Sure enough, in medieval stone, a little naked man, one leg propped up on the looping ribbons of golden sandstone, is masturbating furiously. Dennis loses it completely. Michael switches to a long lens to get a shot.

"Would you look at that," Dennis cries, almost joyfully. "There he is. Look at him go at it!"

Maybe it's the hangover, or the lack of sleep. Maybe it's the jet-lag, from which I haven't fully recovered, or the dollops of protein surging through my system from the endless meat, but Yolanda's spiel is making me giddy and light-headed; I'm having a hard time supressing belly laughs at inappropriate moments. My condition isn't helped by Vincent, much more irritated by her shrill voice, impatient with the tedium of a guided tour, who sidles over to me and whispers: "Can you imagine what she sounds like when she's having sex?"

The bastard. I'm a goner now.

We're in a college cloister, on the arcaded second floor looking down over the enclosed plaza, when Yolanda points upward and shouts: "The rooms on the top floor were built for the prior of the college for to help with his wet dreams." Dennis, Bob and I look at each other with looks of panic and indredulity. "He had his apartment built to look over the Barrio Chino."

I walk away from the group to another window, looking over the cloister and up at the prior's windows. I grip the balustrade and try to suppress shudders of laughter, my eyes running with tears. An older man, perhaps a professor or a university bureaucrat, stops behind me, looking concerned, probably wondering if I'm having some kind of breakdown.

in the old cathedral
in the old cathedral

YOLANDA TAKES US into the University's old library, a part of the tour that, it transpires, is actually something of a privilege. Normally, the age and rarity of the books in this beautiful room preclude anyone but accredited scholars entering, and while the librarian tells us about the room and its contents, one tour group after another crowd at the glassed-in entranceway to gawk at the shelves and cabinets, the wooden tables and antique globes. Schoolchildren mostly, they surge behind the glass like fish, dozens at a time. The librarian walks over at one point to make sure the door is securely locked.

We're shown illuminated books, incunabula and handwritten manuscripts by some of Spain's most famous writers. The librarian slips on cotton gloves to leaf through pages of atlases that show North America, Canada in particular, as little more than strings of settlements along the Atlantic coast, with vast, unfinished sketches of country to the west. It's obvious that he picked out these volumes for our group, though we can't imagine what makes us worthy of the privilege.

Finally, he opens a vault door behind some shelves and tells us that this is the inner sanctum, a climate-controlled room containing the rarest, most treasured volumes in the University's collection. He offers to take two of us in to look, provided we tell the rest of the group about it. Dennis, as a novelist, is chosen almost automatically, and I shoot my hand up. As a book collector, I think it the least I can salvage from this bizarre tour. And so we enter the inner sanctum, the novelist and the pisstank.

Behind the heavy bank-safe door, the room is lined with antique painted wooden bookcases, their doors painted with scenes of medieval university life. The books inside are massively bound in studded leather or pale calfskin, in a variety of sizes and shapes. Off to one side of the room is another cabinet containing a chest of weathered, blackened wood and thick metal strapping. Before lifting the vaulted lid, the librarian points out the five locks, and the corresponding keys on a ring, which were once held by five university notables who all had to be present to unlock the chest. He hefts the lid up and we look in at a small, oblong box, sitting near the front, alone at the bottom of the chest. In the box is a scroll with turned handles at each end. The librarian takes one handle and offers Dennis the other. They lift it out, revealing a beautifully lettered Torah.

"It's from Italy," the librarian tells us, with Yolanda translating. "Venice. Twelfth century." For a moment, I feel transfixed by the irrational passion and vicious folly of history.

manuscript in Salamanca library
in the library

AFTER TAPAS, AND YET ANOTHER fine lunch, we're left on our own. Dennis, Bob and I decide to wander the town for awhile, and decide that we'll skip dinner tonight at the parador and go for a night on the piss. We can't imagine another heavy meal of chorizo and suckling pig and great huge steak, so an evening of beer and tapas sounds perfect.

Bob wants to wander for awhile on his own, so Dennis and I agree to meet him at the Plaza Mayor later that night. We wander back to the parador in the blazing sun, through the traffic roundabout and the trucks charging in off the highway, for a short nap and shower. 

I meet Dennis in the lobby and we make our way back across the river, taking the little streets up the side of the hill, past the roman walls, to get back into town. Dennis shows me the street where he lived with a girlfriend, during his first time in Spain. We hit a few bars in the empty student quarter (exams, we're told by the bartenders) and he tells me the sad, often pathetic story of his early experience with the country. I ask him why he ever came back -- with something so bitter under my belt, I'd likely have stayed away from the place for the rest of my life.

"I just felt that, I guess, I had to beat it. That I wasn't going to let it defeat me. I was going to beat this country."

Bob joins us in the Plaza Mayor, and we descend into the kind of bitter piggishness that straight men, regardless of age or class, race or upbringing, can slip into when alone and sufficiently flush to buy drinks. Some desultory girlwatching leads to bitter war stories. Regardless of the fact that we're three happily married (or near-married in my case) men, there's a reservoir of anger close to the surface that wells up when we're confronted with the spectre of relationships going bad. We tell each other about bad break-ups, and rail against the political correctness that seems to have been a condition of our whole lives. 

We enjoy ourselves immensely, though I imagine that a group of women, seated next to us, might have been immensely offended by our banter. I have to say that I've been offended overhearing women my age, or even mothers and daughters, comparing the emotional immaturity and moral flaccidness of the men in their lives. If there's a gap between the sexes, I have to say that it's primarily a product of each being unable to recognize the mutual awfulness we share. Once again, we stagger across the bridge over the River Tormes to our parador, clutching our stomachs with pained laughter, volleying each obscene new notion into the night air.

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Rick McGinnis
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