A room with a view of kindness
It’s a story I’ve told in conversation with friends, but never before, I believe, in print.
The setting was Alicante, a port town below Valencia on the southeast coast of Spain. The time was the summer of 1959 – 53 years ago this past July.
In March of that year, a newspaper colleague and I had taken leave from journalism to spend several months traveling in Europe.
We’d crossed by steamship first to Southampton and then, after some time in London, by channel ferry to Calais, where in my stumbling pidgin French I managed to buy a $150 car.
It was a Simca 6, a purple subcompact station wagon that, though ancient and somewhat frail, served to carry us through much of France, Germany, Italy and finally Spain.
Our resources were lean. We’d started the journey with $1,200 each, committing ourselves to budgets of $5 a day apiece. Food and wine were cheap, the lodging often primitive.
Sometimes, when the weather was mild and the evening skies cloudless, we spread our blankets in an understanding farmer’s meadow beside the road.
Spain was a desperately poor country then. I remember in Seville meeting a man who bought his children’s shoes with small monthly payments and whose bicycle was the first wheeled vehicle in three generations of his family.
That man came to mind one recent day when I read in The New York Times and saw broadcast on television the news of angry Spanish crowds protesting harsh austerity measures imposed in the country’s worsening economic crisis.
Along with those accounts were pictures of pitiful individuals and families searching through trash bins outside restaurants, hoping to find sustenance.
It was late June in that long-ago year when we arrived in Alicante.
Reading about the city now, I find that it has prospered, becoming a tourist destination and an important center of Spanish filmmaking. But then it was very much a backwater, with no visible industry except an enterprise on the beachfront building wooden fishing boats.
It took some time to find quarters that our slim budgets would allow.
We settled on a place called the Pension Perona, three floors up in an ancient building on the second street back from the shore. The price was $1.25 a night each for a shared room – with two meals a day and wine included.
It was, I believe, the sort of rooming house a poor Spanish bank clerk might have afforded for a holiday.
The stone stairway smelled of cat urine. The summer weather was sultry, and of course there was no air conditioning. The bathroom was a horror, with only discarded newspapers and magazines for tissue.
Senora Carmen Cremada was both the proprietress of the place and the resident cook, with only one young cleaning girl as staff.
I know that my description of the place, though accurate, is unappealing.
But having said that, I must confess that in a lifetime of much travel, there have been few lodgings I remember with such unmixed joy.
We’d barely settled in when my traveling partner – who was a devoted reader of Ernest Hemingway – confessed a yearning to somehow get back north to run with the bulls at the early July festival of San Fermin in Pamplona.
Two problems: He was short of money and had no means of getting there.
“Take the car,” I told him. “I won’t be using it. And I can spare some cash.”
I’d written several freelance pieces during the trip and sent them back to the paper, with instructions to wire payment to me at American Express in Alicante.
I only needed to keep enough to get me through until it came. After that, money would be no problem.
So he left, and I had the room to myself. And a splendid room it was!
Tile-floored, roughly 25 feet by 20, with a great double bed, a large wooden writing desk, a wash stand and daily maid service by the cleaning girl. Wide French doors opened onto a balcony that looked out through date palms and across building tops to the blue Mediterranean.
What’s more, Senora Cremada was a wonderful cook, who would make paella any day I wanted it.
Regrettably, however, the expected payment for my stories did not come. Every day for almost 30 mornings I went with hope to the American Express office on a nearby street. And each day came back disappointed.
Then came the fateful day when Senora Cremada knocked at my door, then strode in, her brow knit, and slapped the fist of one hand into the open palm of the other.
“How much money do you have?” she demanded to know.
I raked a few coins off the bedside table. It might have been 20 or 30 pesetas. Less than a dollar.
“I’m sorry, senora,” I told her. “This is all.”
“It’s not enough!” she said.
And in that instant I imagined myself penniless on the street.
“A man must have money to go to the cafe in the morning, drink his coffee, read the newspaper and have his shoes shined.”
And with that she opened her worn leather purse, took out some bills and pressed them into my hand. If I was to live under her roof, I must have the ability to behave like a man.
Eventually my money for the stories came. I was able to pay what I owed, and I left my tennis shoes as a gift for her son to grow into.
Is it any wonder then that – across the space of half a century – I treasure so fondly every detail of that place, of that sainted woman and of the month I spent there.
I’m troubled to read of the economic pain in Spain today and the distress afflicting a people I remember as proud, generous and deserving of so much better.