My very brave and very blonde pilot Robbie is not so very brave this morning. At breakfast he’s reluctantly chewing away on honey crackers instead of bacon & eggs, his watery eyes staring into infinity. I’m guessing he has come down with light flu. Logistically not a big problem, since the weather for today and the next days is unsuitable for photography anyway. After breakfast I tuck him back into his bed with a hot water bottle and a fatherly kiss on his forehead. I am free. And I am in Spain. In my very own Valladolid, no less. The balmy Saturday morning air greets me when I decide to go shopping with my new companion: A brand new iPod, genuine masterpiece of modern technology with color screen and loads of storage space.
Through narrow alleys passing the repugnant fish odour (good morning ladies) of the Mercado Del Val I cross the road to arrive at the Plaza Mayor. It’s been an ongoing party here for the last week. Like a big mardi gras, no doubt in honour of some obscure Saint of which there are quite a few in this extremist Catholic country. For the occasion, the Plaza Mayor has been turned into a genuine concert hall with a huge stage and lots of floodlights in different colours. The city center streets and alleys surrounding the main square have been graced with countless food stalls for tapas, beer and wine. This early morning the terraces are being mopped and the city cleaners are busy clearing the streets and squares of thousands of plastic glasses and other remnants of yet another festive night. Here and there a dazed partygoer wanders around, undoubtedly looking for his recent past, lost forever after copious amounts of alcohol.
Crossing the Plaza Mayor I continue down the main shopping street towards the big fountain at the end of it. On the many benches surrounding the fountain already quite a few elderly Valladolidians are enjoying the warm morning sunshine. The latest town happenings and gossips are discussed loud enough for their hard of hearing partners to understand. I pull Schubert out of my ears for a minute to catch some of the conversations. Not because it particularly interests me, but more because I really enjoy the Spanish language. The fast, the loud, the rolling ‘R’. The many gestures are the icing on the cake for me. If only I could master this beautiful language as fluently as them….
Now I have to say that I can manage quite well to some extent. I understand most of what’s being said, and can usually make myself understood, with only limited sign language on my part. This in contrast to Robbie. Robbie is still where I was 10 years ago. Understanding five Spanish words but only able to pronounce two of those properly and surrounded by all kinds of people except those of the English speaking kind. Very frustrating I do admit.
This reminds me of this evening in Zaragoza with a certain J.B., pilot and friend of many years. After enjoying several glasses of beer and wine with our tour guide and part-time navigator Carlos (god whatever has become of this guy and his dreams I wonder…) we found ourselves in a local Cerveceria, stealthily eyeing some young female beauties at the bar across from us. Much to our dismay Carlos, upon noticing this, immediately decided to take action, fully ignoring our half hearted objections. The next minute we found ourselves standing opposite two amazingly beautiful Spanish girls, neither of which knew even the least bit of English. ‘Lost for words’ in this situation is really putting it mildly. We would have loved to discuss with them the virtues of Life In Spain, the olive trees in winter time and the green grass of Asturias. Instead we just stood there in front of them, holding our beer while they giggled like any Spanish Girl in this situation is supposed to giggle. And we, for lack of words to express ourselves, were desperately trying, through eye expression and body language, to make them understand what we, overcome by too much alcohol and mesmerizing beauty, were really trying to say: “I might not know any Spanish, but I lick like Lassie The Wonderdog”. Or at least something to that extent. Luckily a few days later we were saved from further error by the arrival of S.B., girlfriend of J.B. and patron Saint to our Faith and Honour in these trying times.
With Schubert back in my ears I cross the street and arrive at the Paseo de Zorilla. Funny how obedient to authority the average Spaniard seems to be. At pedestrian crossings everybody patiently waits for the light to turn green even if there is no traffic at all. Only very seldom will you see a pedestrian crossing a red light. More often than not it will be a Dutch peasant failing to hear the disapproving murmur because of the iPod in his ears.
The Paseo de Zorilla is a large double boulevard with shops and cafes on either side. It’s quite a walk but my final goal is at the end of this busy promenade. El Corte Ingles. Along the way I pass thirty-three kiosks, forty-seven ice-cream stands, ninety-two benches with elderly Vallodolidians and one Plaza de Toros. All doors are closed so I imagine no bull will be bothered today. I continue on to my final goal and the ultimate reason of today’s walk: Silence. You see, ever since we arrived here in Spain we’ve been flying like crazy. Five, six hours per day. Every day. First down in Almeria, with Cordoba as our base, then in Pais Vasco (Basque Country) with Valladolid as our home base. During flight I am now using a high tech headset that reduces the noise by electronic means. And that thing DEVOURS batteries! After one flight they’re empty and I have to buy new ones. So for this I am now going to the biggest department store Valladolid has to offer to buy rechargeable batteries and a charger. I’ll keep the charger in the plane so I will be forever supplied with silence for my sensitive little ears.
That is if I have the guts to take yet another electric device with me on board. Last week we passed through the eye of the needle, camel and all: Fire in the cabin during flight. An event that I hope never to experience again in my life. On that fateful day we left Cordoba at the hottest time of the afternoon. At the stand where our plane was parked it was a sizzling 44 degrees in the shade. We wanted to be ready for a bout of good weather in Pais Vasco starting the next day, so we relocated our base to Valladolid. It was a boring ferry flight of around one and a half hours, and I decided to download some data from the camera, which meant I had all the equipment running. After setting up the download I fell asleep to the hum of the engines like any proper navigator would do. I woke up to the smell of burning plastic. Looking towards the back of the plane I saw small flames coming out of the inverter, an electric device that delivers 220 volts for our computers. We were at 10,000 feet, in the middle of Spain, mountains all around and the nearest airport at least half an hour away. Breathing was almost impossible with a cutting pain in nose and throat and as I looked at the mountains below us it dawned on me: “So. This is it. This is how it happens. This is how I’ll die.”
Nevertheless I climbed back to disconnect the converter (Robbie, startled by my scream, had already pulled the circuit breaker) and pull it onto an aluminum box, hoping to prevent any spreading of the fire. I even tried to blow out the flames. You do what you have to do right? Shortly after, luckily, the fire doused itself and gradually the atmosphere inside the cabin became breathable again. And I hear you say: “Didn’t you have a fire extinguisher on board ?”. Yes we did. But since it was mounted in between the seats, and I used to climb back and forth a lot to go from navigator to unlicensed co-pilot and vice versa, it had a tendency to come loose from its mount. Finally we stuffed it somewhere under a seat, never to be found that specific moment when you really really need it. Needless to say, after this incident, it is now mounted back in its proper place, ready for use if we need it, which I hope we never will. The smell of burned plastic stayed in the cabin for days, no matter how much ventilation we did during our subsequent flights. As a smelly reminder to a fuckup that nearly killed us both. Anyway, what I wanted to say is that I’ve become a bit wary to add a piece of Chinese plastic that I just bought for 15 euros to our flying equipment. Rather I’ll just stick to recharging the batteries in the hotel. I’m too young to die.
Well…young…not really if I’m honest. I celebrated my 41st birthday at 10,000 feet over Vitoria. That morning while brushing my teeth I was surprised by someone knocking on my door. Thinking it was Robbie I opened the door dressed only in white briefs. The cute girl from the breakfast restaurant wheeled in a festive breakfast cart and wished me feliz cumpleaños while I held my breath and drew my belly into a genuine six-pack. Slightly embarrassed I thanked her and she left. Robbie had arranged the whole thing at reception. The rat. But still, a real birthday feeling even though my navigator seat in the airplane had no colourful balloons or guirlandes. But that afternoon after the flight I surprised myself with the new iPod I told you about. “Oh Hans you shouldn’t have, it’s too expensive!! Well now stop that my dear friend. You totally deserve it, really, think nothing of it….”
That afternoon at the airport we had also run into Juan and Jesus, a flying crew of our competitor TASA with whom we already had a memorable evening back in Cordoba. Now, in honour of my cumpleaños, we decided to have another memorable evening that night in Valladolid. Especially Juan is quite the character to take along on such events. With the mischief twinkling in his eyes and the constant flow of stories decorated with wide gestures and loud laughs it turns morning before you know it. On top of that, Juan is very proud of his country and is always set to have us experience the absolute best Spain has to offer. In all respects. When, upon his question, we reluctantly confess where we had dinner the previous night he invariably grimaces in disapproval. “That place is for TOURISTS! Come with me, I will show you a good place !”. That’s what happened in Cordoba and that’s what happened on the evening of my birthday in Valladolid. With a belly-ache from laughing so much and more than a bit lightheaded from the best wine Valladolid had to offer we went to bed way too late. Or early, rather. Forty-one and one day. Tsk tsk tsk.
Here at the Paseo de Zorilla, where I have now resumed the way back to the hotel, it is really starting to get warm. Sweaty droplets are trickling down my face and back. The Plaza Mayor has filled up with people drinking coffee and eating a morning croissant. Even the Squint seems to be very busy. ‘The Squint’ is a known character from when I was here with (also blonde) pilot Jan Zwart, many moons ago. Paulino is his real name and he used to work at one of the coffee bars lining the Plaza Mayor. An amiable man of about fifty years with a speech impediment and half inch thick glasses. Hence the nickname ‘the Squint’. His trademark goodbye and also the only words of English in his vocabulary was “See you later alligator” followed by his typical laugh “Je Je Je Je”. Paulino was studying law in his spare time. He was going to go into the bailiff’s business. Undoubtedly a lucrative branch in this country where ‘mañana’ is a widely heard statement, even when it comes to debt payments. When we arrived here two weeks ago and didn’t find him at the Cafe del Norte, I assumed with a sentimental feeling that he had actually done it. I imagined he had finished his law school and was now a much-feared bailiff in the district of Valladolid. I was happy for him. So it was with mixed feelings that, a few days ago, I saw him serving coffee again at the Plaza Mayor, this time at a coffee bar on the other side of the square. I didn’t dare ask him about his study, but we recognised each other immediately and it’s very nice to have a fixed place again to have a coffee and a chat after a hard day’s work. See you later alligator, je je je je.
Back in the hotel I send the elevator to the top floor. The Olid Melia, a reasonably big hotel, has one penthouse room with a roof terrace and it belongs to me! Because when we checked in there was nothing else available, and I didn’t really object. For the same price as a single room of course, we’re still Dutch, let there be no mistake about that. My terrace is looking out over all of Valladolid, and because seven floors is actually quite high, I always get an uncomfortable feeling in the lower abdomen when I bend over the rather low railing and look down at the road below. But it is ideal to get some fresh air and especially to dry the laundry. In the Spanish sun this takes a mere couple of hours to completely dry, ready for folding. On these boring days when we don’t fly, the washing of my briefs and socks is a very welcome diversion. Are you listening housewives? A very welcome diversion!
Day after tomorrow the weather is supposed to be good in the south. Maybe we should go take a look there….