Just outside Madrid, Europe’s last Fascist capitol, we stopped to clean the car’s backseat of remnants of a bushel of oranges bought on the road out of Seville. The oranges had started to give off the unmistakable, chemical stench of rotting citrus. We worked carefully under the watchful eyes of the Civil Guard. The closer we came to the Madrid, the more heavily patrolled the roads. An illegal copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls weighed heavily in my suitcase. I was nineteen. I had been reading Hemingway and the romantic World War II mysteries of Eric Ambler, where the fascists are vicious and communists heroic.
We walked from our cheap traveler’s hotel that first afternoon toward the center of town on virtually empty streets. We stopped for coffee and bread at a cold, unheated cafe where people huddled in dark over-coats and hats, unfriendly. Working class Madrid had a used-up look. There were no spontaneous bursts of passion, no haunting tunes of flamenco, no sherry bars with free tapas, no religious icons like Toledo. The gray, stone walls of the official buildings were dark with grime, the streets empty of traffic, a cliché black and white film from the Nazi era.
We had dinner at Cafe Economic #5. Two nineteen-year-old boys speaking quietly in English attracted attention. Diagonally across the room, sitting in the corner, an elderly gentleman in a three-piece suit stared at us. He was rail thin with white hair carefully combed back. When he saw me looking at him he got up from his table and walked across the room. We stopped eating and stood up. He handed us a worn business card. The gold embossed card identified him as a poet. I kept the card for years, but like so many other material objects in my life, it slipped away. “I assume that you are Americans,” he said in perfect, somewhat academic English.
The poet accepted our invitation to sit down. His pin stripped suit was frayed but immaculate. He held himself with pride. The entire restaurant was looking at us out of the corners of their eyes as they went on with their dinners. He asked us how we liked Spain. What did we think of Madrid? Were we “political?” Finally, he offered to show us “the real Spain.”
We met him at a cafe the next morning. He took us on a slow walking tour of pre-Fascist cultural monuments. In one instance, he had a key to a deserted looking 19th century mansion. Once inside, we found libraries stripped of books, rooms with shadowy traces of tapestries gone from the walls and the forlorn, musty smell of decay. The books were seized as subversive, the poet said. The club members arrested as subversives, the paintings and tapestries sold to pay taxes.
“This is the face of fascism. Go home and tell the American people about the real Spain. How can they support a fascist dictator who denies his people every common dignity.” The tour ended late that night in a dark, working class bar near our hotel, where our poet seemed accidentally to run into an old friend, George Matei, who was visiting Madrid from Paris.
It later became clear that bumping into George was no accident.