A Ride Through Spain
On the train, standing still.
By Truman Capote, 1950
Certainly the train was old. The seats sagged like the jowls of a bulldog; windowpanes were out, and strips of adhesive held together those that were left; in the corridor a prowling cat appeared to be hunting mice, and it was not unreasonable to assume that his search would be rewarded. Slowly we crept out of Granada. The southern sky was as white and burning as a desert; in it was a single, tiny cloud. I was going to Algeciras, a Spanish seaport facing the coast of Africa. In my compartment there were five people, all told. One was a middle-aged Australian wearing a soiled linen suit; he had tobacco-colored teeth, and his fingernails were broken and dirty. Presently he informed us that he was a ship’s doctor. It seemed odd, there on the dry, dour plains of Spain, to meet someone connected with the sea. Then, there were two women, a mother and daughter. The mother was an overstuffed, dusty woman with sluggish, disapproving eyes and a faint mustache. The focus for her disapproval shifted from place to place. First, she eyed me rather strongly, because, as the sunlight fanned brighter, waves of heat blew through the broken windows and I removed my jacket—which she must have considered, perhaps rightly, discourteous. Later on, she took a dislike to the third man in our compartment, a young soldier. The soldier and the woman’s not very discreet daughter, a buxom girl with the scrappy features of a prizefighter, seemed to have tacitly agreed to flirt. Whenever the wandering cat appeared at our door, the daughter pretended to be frightened, and the soldier gallantly shooed the cat into the corridor; this byplay gave them frequent opportunities to touch each other.
The young soldier was one of many on the train. With their tasselled caps set at snappy angles, they hung about in the corridors smoking sweet, black cigarettes and laughing confidentially. They seemed to be having a good time, and apparently this was wrong of them, for when an officer appeared, they would stare fixedly out the windows, as though enraptured by the landslides of red rock, the olive fields, and the stern mountains. Their officers were dressed for a parade—many ribbons, much brass, and some wore gleaming, improbable swords strapped to their belts. They did not mix with the soldiers but sat together in a first-class compartment, looking bored and rather like unemployed actors. The compartment ahead of mine had been taken over by one family—a delicate, attenuated, exceptionally elegant man with a mourning ribbon sewed around his sleeve, and six thin, summery girls, his daughters. The girls, who resembled their father, were beautiful, all of them, and in the same way: hair that had a dark shine, lips the color of pimientos, eyes like sherry. In age, they ranged from about fourteen to twenty-one. The soldiers would glance into their compartment, then look away. It was as if they had seen straight into the sun.
Whenever the train stopped, the man’s two youngest daughters, carrying parasols, would descend from the carriage and stroll under their shade. They enjoyed many lengthy promenades, for the train spent the greater part of its time standing still. No one appeared to be exasperated by this except me. Several passengers seemed to have friends at every station with whom they could sit, usually around a fountain, and gossip long and lazily. One old woman was met by little groups in a dozen or so towns. Between these encounters, she wept, and with such abandon that the Australian doctor eventually became alarmed and asked, in Italian, if he could help her. Why, no, she said, there was nothing he could do; it was just that seeing all her relatives made her so happy.
At each stop, cyclones of barefooted women and more or less naked children ran the length of the train, sloshing earthen jars of water and furrily squalling “Agua! Agua!” For two pesetas, you could buy a whole basket of dark, runny figs, and there were trays of curious white-coated candy doughnuts that looked as though they should be eaten by young girls wearing Communion dresses. Toward noon, having collected a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, a sausage, and a small cheese, I was prepared for lunch. My companions in the compartment were hungry, too. Packages were produced, wine was uncorked, and for a while there was a pleasant, almost graceful festiveness. The soldier shared a pomegranate with the girl, the Australian told an amusing story, the witch-eyed mother pulled a paper-wrapped fish from her bosom and ate it with a glum relish.
Afterward, everyone was sleepy; the doctor went so solidly to sleep that a fly meandered undisturbed over his openmouthed face. Stillness etherized the whole train. In the next compartment, the lovely girls leaned against one another loosely, like six exhausted geraniums. Even the cat had ceased to prowl and lay dreaming in the corridor. We had climbed higher; the train moseyed across a plateau of rough yellow wheat, then between the granite walls of deep ravines, where strange, thorny trees quivered in the wind moving down from the mountains. Once, at a parting in the trees, there was something I’d wanted to see—a castle on a hill. It sat there like a crown.
It was a landscape for bandits. Earlier in the summer, a young Englishman I know (rather, know of) had been motoring through this part of Spain when, on the lonely side of a mountain, his car was surrounded by swarthy scoundrels. They robbed him, then tied him to a tree and tickled his throat with the blade of a knife. I was thinking of this when, without preface, a spatter of gunfire strafed the dozy silence. It was a machine gun. The train, with a wounded creak, slowed to a halt. For a moment, there was no sound except the machine gun’s cough. Then, in a loud, dreadful voice, I said, “Bandits!”
“Bandidos!” screamed the daughter.
“Bandidos!” echoed her mother, and the terrible word swept through the train.
The result was slapstick in a grim key. All of us in the compartment collapsed on the floor, one cringing heap of arms and legs, except for the mother, who kept her head. She stood up and systematically stashed away her treasures. She stuck a ring into the bun of her hair, and, without shame, hiked up her skirts and dropped a pearl-studded comb into her bloomers. Airy twitterings of distress came from the charming girls in the next compartment. In the corridor, the officers bumped about, yapping orders and knocking into one another.
Suddenly, within the train, silence. Outside, there was the murmur of wind in the leaves, of voices. Just as the weight of the doctor’s body was becoming too much for me, the outer door of our compartment swung open and a young man stood there. He did not look clever enough to be a bandit. “Hay un médico en el tren?” he asked, smiling.
The Australian, removing his elbow from my stomach, climbed to his feet. “I’m a doctor,” he admitted, dusting himself. “Has someone been wounded?”
“Si, señor. An old man. He is hurt in the head,” said the Spaniard, who was not a bandit, alas, but merely another passenger.
Getting back in our seats, the rest of us listened, expressionless with embarrassment, to the story of what had happened. It seemed that for the last several hours an old man had been stealing a ride by clinging to the rear of the train. Just now, he’d lost his hold, and a soldier, seeing him fall, had started firing a machine gun as a signal for the engineer to stop the train. My only hope was that no one remembered who had first mentioned bandits. There was no indication that anyone did. The doctor, after acquiring a clean shirt of mine to use as a bandage, went off to his patient, and the mother, turning her back with sour prudery, reclaimed her pearl comb.
Her daughter, the soldier, and I got out of the carriage and strolled under the trees of a small wood that smelled of oranges, where many of the passengers had gathered to discuss the incident. Two more soldiers appeared, carrying the old man. My shirt had been wrapped around his head. They propped him under a tree, and all the women clustered about, vying with each other to lend him a rosary; someone brought a bottle of wine, which pleased him more. He seemed quite happy, and moaned a great deal. Some children from the train circled around him, giggling. A path led to a shaded promontory, from which one looked across a valley where sweeping stretches of scorched golden grass shivered as though the earth were trembling. Admiring the valley and the shadowy changes of light on the hills beyond, the six sisters, escorted by their elegant father, sat on the grass with their parasols raised above them, like guests at a fête champêtre. The soldiers moved around them in a vague, ambitious manner; they did not dare to approach, though one brash, sassy fellow went to the edge of the promontory and called, “Yo te quiero mucho!” The words returned with the hollow sub-music of a perfect echo, and the sisters, blushing, looked more deeply into the valley.
Alarge cloud, sombre as the rocky hills, had massed in the sky, and the grass below was stirring like the sea before a storm. Someone said he thought it would rain. But no one wanted to go, including the injured man, who was well on his way through a second bottle of wine, and the children, who, having discovered the echo, stood happily carolling into the valley. It was like a party, and we all drifted back to the train as though each of us wished to be the last to leave. The old man, with my shirt like a grand turban on his head, was put into a first-class carriage, and several eager ladies attended him.
In our compartment, the dusty mother, who had not seen fit to join the party, sat just as we had left her. She gave me a long, glittering look. “Bandidos!” she said, with a surly, unnecessary vigor. The train moved on so slowly that butterflies blew in and out the windows. ♦
Published in the print edition of the New Yorker Magazine, September 2, 1950, issue.
WHY WE TRAVEL: Christina Lamb on her career-igniting journey to Afghanistan
The chief foreign correspondent at The Sunday Times was just 22 years old when, in the late 1980s, she journeyed up the Grand Trunk Road to Afghanistan — the start of a long and enduring love affair with the country’s colours, flavours and hospitality.
BY CHRISTINA LAMB
PUBLISHED 1 JUL 2020, 17:41 BSTUPDATED 2 JUL 2020, 08:00 BST
Sometimes, if I catch the fresh scent of pine trees or see a fragment of deep-blue lapis lazuli, it takes me back. Back to Herat, stamping my feet to keep warm in a dusty shop crammed with muskets and antiquities, as I watch Sultan Hamidy, the glassblower, conjure up goblets of jade-green and cobalt-blue, telling me that for every one he blows he breathes the name of one who’s died in the war. Back to Mazar-i-Sharif and the cloud of snow-white doves swirling round the Blue Mosque, where legend has it any grey bird will be turned white. Or Kabul, in November’s pomegranate season, drinking thick juice from a roadside grinder with a giant wheel or sucking on ruby-red pips shining like jewels.
I was just 22 the first time I went to Afghanistan and it turned everything I’d known or valued upside down. I had no links with the country but had ended up in neighbouring Pakistan after an unexpected invitation to a wedding in Karachi. I fell in love with the place and took a crowded minibus, called a Flying Coach, up the Grand Trunk Road to Peshawar, which any Afghan will tell you used to be part of Afghanistan, and, many believe, still is.
In my bag was a pack of letters written in black ink by a Pakistani friend to local contacts and a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim.
The bus journey ended at sundown in the Old City, which, it seemed, hadn’t changed very much since Kipling’s day. Wooden-framed buildings leaning on each other, streets filled with men wearing black eyeliner and silver-embroidered slippers with curled toes, rifles casually slung across their backs.
I soon found my way to the Storytellers’ Bazaar, where a boy played an accordion and long-bearded elders sipped green tea and talked about battles as if they’d happened yesterday. We had a shared history, Britain and Afghanistan having fought three wars between 1878 and 1919, and they loved to remind me they’d won (well, at least twice).
Afghanistan lay the other side of the Khyber Pass and the jagged mountains we could see in the distance. I began travelling in and out with the mujahideen, who were fighting the soldiers of the Soviet army, which had occupied their country. The air was so crisp and the mountains full of pines, and the villages where we stayed were the poorest places I’d ever seen. Yet everyone we met shared all they had — a little tea, dry bread and occasionally some yoghurt or dried mulberries. I’d never met people so hospitable, or such storytellers, even though most were illiterate. It made me realise they had values we’d forgotten.
I never imagined then that Afghanistan would become so much part of my life, a place I’d visit frequently over the following 32 years. Perhaps your first assignment as a foreign correspondent always has a special pull, like a first love affair.
When I hear people talk of the country as a ‘dusty land of men with beards and guns’, it’s true that it’s been at war for 40 years and that Afghans fight, even with kites and boiled eggs. But it’s also a land of poetry and pomegranates, and I dream of the day when there’s peace and I can visit with my son, who’s almost the age I was that first time.
Christina Lamb OBE is the chief foreign correspondent at The Sunday Times and author of Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World, published by William Collins.
THE ISLE OF GOD by Ludwig Bemelmans
Once you arrive at the beach, it’s yours.
We took a motorboat to the Ile-d’Yeu from Fromentine, which is on the west coast of France and about ten hours by train from Paris. The island itself lies twelve miles out from the mainland. The entrance to the harbor of d’Yeu is like a bent arm. At the elbow stands the lighthouse, and the entrance is so narrow that a chain is thrown from the lighthouse and fastened to the bow of the entering motorboat. The captain spins his steering gear, and the boat turns in its own length, slips through the passage as a hand into a pocket, and is fastened to the pier.
The Ile-d’Yeu is immediately beautiful and at once familiar. Its round, small harbor is stuffed with boats; the fat tuna schooners lie in the centre, around them sleek sardine and lobster boats. Twice a day, as the tide runs out, there starts a creaking of boats and a tilting of masts. All of the boats begin to settle and to lean on their neighbors, and all the water runs out of the harbor with the tide.
The first house you come to from the dock is a poem of a hotel—the ideal small hotel. It has a bridal suite, with a pompon-curtained bed, a chaste washstand, pale-pink paper with white pigeons flying over it, and three tangerine velvet fauteuils, large enough for two people, closely held, to sit in together.
The propriétaire is perfect, rubbing his hands, hopping about, glaring at employees, smiling at guests. Madame sits behind an ornate desk in the dining room, her eyes everywhere. The kitchen is bright and smells of good butter, the linen is white, the silver gleams, the waiter is spotless. Outside, overlooking the harbor, and under an awning behind a hedge of well-watered yew trees, are the apéritif tables and chairs.
The prospectus states that the hotel has “Eau chaude et froide, chauffage central, tout confort moderne,” but all this is of no importance, because you can’t get a room there. There are but twenty-six rooms, and these are reserved year after year by the same French families. By April, the hotel is booked full. “Ah, if you would only have written me a letter in March,” says the propriétaire several times a day from June to September.
Walking down the Quai Sadi Carnot, you turn right and go through the Rue de la Sardine. This street is beautifully named; the houses on both sides touch your shoulders, and only a man with one short leg can pass through it in comfort, as half the street is taken up by a sidewalk too narrow to walk on with both feet. At the end of the Street of the Sardine is the island’s store, the Nouvelles Galleries Insulaires. Its propriétaire is Monsieur Penaud, who found a place for us to live.
He established us for three happy months in a fisherman’s house at the holiest address in this world, Numéro Trois, Rue du Paradis, Saint-Sauveur, Ile-d’Yeu. Ile-d’Yeu should really be Ile-de Dieu, Monsieur Penaud explained, since “d’Yeu” is the ancient and faulty way the islanders spelled “God.”
Our house was a white, well-designed building. Through every door and window of it smiled the marine charm of this perfect island. The sea was not more than sixty metres from our door. At one side was an eleventh-century church, with a steeple built in the shape of a lighthouse. Over our house hung gulls and the murmur of the sea, and in a corner of the garden stood a hen coop made of an old rowboat set on end, a sailor painted on its bottom. The vegetables in the garden, the fruit in the trees, and the hens’ eggs went with the house. It is a nice, immoral thing to take over a household so alive, complete, and warm, and to dig up radishes that someone else has planted for you.
The coast of the Ile is a succession of small private beaches, each one like a room with three walls, with curtains of rock and greenery, and a cave to dress in. Once you arrive, it’s yours. On the open side is the water, its little waves washing up on fine sand. Back and forth over the green sea sails the sardine fleet, its colored sails leaning over the water.
There are no tourists, and there seem to be only three kinds of people: sailors, with every shade of color in their sensible pants and blouses a hundred times patched; children; and little, bent old women, who are called by the islanders les vieux corbeaux because they are always in twos, their sharp profiles hooked together, gossiping like crows in a tree.
Everywhere are fish, and the things relating to them. The sardine is the banana of the Ile-d’Yeu; you slip and fall on sardines everywhere. They look out of the small market baskets that the vieux corbeaux carry home, their tails stick out of fishermen’s pockets, they are dragged past you in barrels. Other, larger fish, the tuna predominantly, wander by hung over the shoulders of strong sailors, or tied to bicycles, or pushed along in carts.
The cooking on the island is of the simplest; the Hotel Turbé can be recommended. The specialty of the Auberge des Homardiers in Port de la Meule is, strangely enough, homard à l’américaine.
From where the boat lands to Port de la Meule is a three-hour walk. The port is a moon-shaped, rock-rimmed, wild harbor that holds at most five small boats. The Auberge des Homardiers overlooks it. Madame Pompano, who owns this tavern, is a passionata, with the hips, the nostrils, the voice, and the laughter of Lynn Fontaine. She will, before you enter, inquire whether you are by any chance American. Say “No” if you want the homard à l’américaine or anything else. Tell her you’re Scotch or Australian. If you say “Yes,” she will lean back, put her fists on her hips, barricade the door with her shoulders, and with a stare that goes far out to sea, she will look past you and, laughing, say that she has no table, no ho-ho-ho-mard à l’americaine or anything else for you. It’s three hours back to the Hotel Turbé, where you will arrive too late for dinner.
For this phobia you have to thank a sailor, a first-class machinist’s mate, called Swanky Franky. He arrived one day, years ago, toward the end of the war, on board a United States submarine which limped into the port with one of its engines crippled.
Franky walked up the hill and with appetite and thirst made himself at home in the Auberge des Homardiers, and stretched his legs under the table. His favorite dish was homard à l’américaine. And while he waited for the parts to come to repair the submarine, he translated with the aid of a little book, his sentiments and his plans for the future to Madame Pompano. With his honest, big, red hands he rubbed her hack. He kissed her behind the car, and mumbled of a little house in Englewood, New Jersey, of electric irons, a vacuum cleaner, and even a voiture Buick. One day the submarine parts arrived.
Three weeks passed, the repair work was finished, and then Swanky Franky and his promises disappeared into the submarine and went to sea. The old crows of Port de la Meule carried the story all over the island; everybody pointed to the Auberge. Madame locked herself in and swore the terrible revenge which she has visited on all the Americans who have since then chanced to enter the Auberge des Homardiers. ♦
Published in the print edition of the August 5, 1939, issue.