I first came to Spain on Jan 2, 1965. I wanted to spend Christmas here but my commander would not let me go because we had to transition our records from 1964 to 1965, and I was the only one that could do it. So, a few minutes past midnight I swapped the records and run to the Stuttgart Bahnhof to take off to Madrid.
I got on the Orient Express on the way to Paris France. No, there was no murder and no mystery just a comfortable ride. When I got to Paris, I got off the train and started showing people my ticket knowing that they could point me to the correct train for my connection. People kept telling me something I did not understand. Finally, some gentleman grabbed me by the arm took me outside the train station, hailed a taxi and said Gare De l’Est. I had arrived at Gare du Nord. Some distance away. I got in the taxi and went to another part of town. When I showed people my tickets they pointed hurriedly to the train. I got on as the train as it was starting to take off. My ticket was to Madrid but the train tracks between France and Spain were incompatible so I had to get off at Hendaye, France This was before EU and all European countries had closed borders so I had to go through customs. Then I had to walk across to Irun, Spain to board my train to Madrid. This was a really old train it was a real choo choo train. It had trouble going up the mountains. Whatever time we were supposed to get to Madrid it did not happen. Fortunately for me, there was an American airman in the same cabin as I so we started talking till he fell asleep and I stared into the sky.
This was my second trip to Paris. I decided I wanted to see Paris. I asked my boss if he would grant me some time off to go to Paris. Took some persuading but eventually, he relented and agreed to let me go. Of course, everyone in the barracks learned of my planned trip and started harassing me about the trip. Things, like “How are you getting to Paris, you don’t know French, you don’t know German and you don’t know English”. My thick Mexican accent clearly noticeable. My reply turned out to be more than jive talk, I replied, “when I board the train I am going to look to my left and there is going to be this beautiful lady looking out the window and she will speak German, French and English”. The big day of departure came and some of my friends came to the train station to bid me good bye. Like I was going away forever. I boarded the train, looked to my left and there was this nice-looking lady staring out the window. I asked, “Do you speak English? To which she replied “Yes”. German? She replied, “Ja”. French? Wee. I boldly stated, “Wee are going to Paris!!!”.
I had plenty of preparation for the trip. GI’s know everything. My friends kept telling that I had to go to Pig Alley. My boss even taught me the French he thought was important, “Valez vous avec moi ce soir:” He assured me that was the only French I needed. I landed at the Gare du Nord, found a hotel nearby and started exploring Paris by walking.
There was also this nice lady at the hotel where I stayed. In the morning, I would go to the lobby and she had coffee and pastry for me. Being an American and used to having eggs for breakfast I asked her once if they had any. She did the best she could and each morning she would bring me a 3-minute boiled egg. She showed me how to take the top of the egg shell off gracefully. Like a Frenchman.
One evening I asked the lady at the desk why no one knew where the Eiffel Tower was located. She asked me how I was asking and I replied in English. She gave me instructions on how to get there. Take the Trocadero bus. Tell the driver “la tour Eiffel.” Sure enough when we got close I could see it. I took my first trip to the Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacre Ceour and the local American Legion post where I ate a hamburger. I love Paris.
I don’t know how many time zones we went through on our way to Spain but late the following night the train made a stop and I noticed that the name of the stop was Avila, the town I was going to. I asked the attendant if per chance this was where I was going and he told me to get off I was in the right place. I had to be sure so I asked him about not going to Madrid first. He got a little frustrated and told me if I wanted to go to Madrid stay, if I was going to Avila get off. So I got off. I was at my destination. Almost. It was late at night and I wanted a bed. So I was pointed to the only hotel near the train station. I went there and asked for a room. The attendant asked me for my passport. No Go. I did not have one. Military in Europe did not need a passport, just a letter saying you were American military. It worked all the way to Avila. It did not work in Avila. So we went to the Guardia Civil where I had to explain the agreement between the governments and the US military. Finally, in sheer frustration the Guardia Civil tells the lady to let me have a room. It was pretty safe. It was winter time and I was not going to go anywhere. I just kept thinking of that warm bed that was waiting for me. Wishful thinking. This was Spain, 1964 and the country was still pretty bad off. Forget about modern conveniences. There was no heating, no warm water and just one bathroom for everybody. But like all of Europe you make warm blankets. So I buried myself in a big blanket and got some sleep. My new adventure would begin the next day and my final destination.
My final destination was Navalmoral de la Sierra. It was Winter and there was snow and ice everywhere. I looked for a taxi but no one was willing to take me because the mountain pass was impassible due to ice. Finally, a young taxi cab driver agreed to take me. Against the advice of all the older drivers. We took off. There was no problem until we reached the summit. The road was covered with ice. As we started going down the mountain the driver lost control and the car slid into a huge rock that was there to prevent cars from going down the mountain. He managed to get the banged up car to crawl along and back to Avila. A new cab driver agreed to take me but this time through a safe road, albeit longer drive so more money. I would not be deterred. We took off and he took me to the bus stop at Navalmoral. The Parador was also the local hotel and like the first hotel the only amenity it had was the warm blanket. This was my destination.
My return trip to Germany.
The day finally came that I had to return to Germany. I went to the train station at Avila and waited for the train from Madrid to arrive. It did. I unfortunately, was not the only one returning to Germany. So were hundreds of what the Germans called “gastarbeiters (guest workers)” that had come to spend the Christmas holidays with their loved ones.. I took too long to say my goodbye’s and when I went to get on the train the only space available was just inside the train. The door would close on my butt. Not very comfortable but I did have to get back.
The train stopped at Valladolid to let off some travelers and pick some up. I had to get out of the train to let passengers off. This time when I went to get on, there was no space at all. I waited for a caboose to be added to the train. This time I got on but all the seats were taken and I had to stand up. Soon the Spaniards took out their pan, chorizo, jamon, queso and of course, vino. They were not going to let me stand there and watch them eat so they passed all the goodies to me. When I asked where the bathroom was someone pointed outside. Correct. Just that the bathroom was filled with baggage and people. I asked one of the people how I was supposed to use the bathroom and he pointed. Naturally, just do it.
Great discovery number two was that when I went to get back inside the caboose, someone had taken my place. So I waited outside till someone came out and then I went inside. We finally made it to Irun and I had to get out go through customs and board a train to Paris. When I boarded the train I went to first class. The ticket checker came in looked at my ticket and told me that I was in the wrong car. I just took out some money, he upgraded right there. I had a good ride to Paris, France, change train stations and on to Stuttgart. My first trip to Spain was over. I would return many more times and see the country go from a dictatorship to a democracy from a country destroyed by a horrible civil war to the modern country it is today. The most notable image of the civil war is Picassos “Guernica”.