First and foremost, a word on the patient: Embry is doing fine. She has quite a shiner and the bandage remains; but we walked about five miles yesterday and attended a choral concert last evening. She in fact is holding up better than I am.
The last blog post dealt the Spanish health care delivery system. The topic today is criminal justice and law enforcement, an interest area where we have both past and now current experience.
Our first trip to Spain was in the fall of 1973 when we visited the southern coast on a cheap, one week vacation posted on the bulletin board of the DC YMCA. The trip got off to a shaky start when driving out of the rental car agency I turned right instead of left and stared into oncoming traffic in both lanes, cars honking loudly. Oops, one way street. I suppose you could say we were lucky because one of the cars had a blue light on top, turned on a siren and stopped traffic allowing us to back up and turn around before we had a head on collision. Then came our first encounter with the Spanish criminal justice system. All I remember is that a fuming cop stomped over to our car, armed to the hilt—an assault rifle on his back, pistol, helmet, the whole works. He was not happy and expressed his displeasure very effectively even though he did not speak a word of English. We ended up giving him all the cash we had. The entire incident was over in less than five minutes due in part to the fact that Andrew, who was barely three at the time, was throwing up on the back seat, not exactly the kind of atmosphere to encourage a cop to hang around.
“What is this place anyway,” I asked Embry, “a fascist police state?”
“Well, yes, actually it is.” she commented.
(It would be two more years before Franco died.)
Fast forward to April 2015. We are driving along on a super highway, the first time we have used the car that our host, Juan, has graciously made available to us. It has been only about 15 minutes since we departed. Suddenly, a white motorcycle pulls out in front of us, and a guy wearing a yellow jacket is motioning us to pull over. I glance in the rear view mirror, and behind us is another white motorcycle with a guy wearing a yellow jacket. Embry noted that she thought they must be police. Not again, I thought.
We pulled over. One cop remained on his motorcycle while the other approached us. He was not scowling like I remember the cop of 1973 and actually had a rather pleasant expression. And he did not appear to be armed. At least he was not carrying an assault weapon. I breathed a little easier.
We all know how the routine works and I was ready for him, handing over my drivers license, which he studied carefully. Then he asked for my “passaporte”. Passaporte? Passport? What passport, the one I left at the apartment?
Despite speaking very little English, he made the point that a US drivers license is invalid without a passport.
Okay, I thought, no passport, therefore no valid drivers license, some inexplicable moving violation on a super highway. What are we talking about here, six weeks in the slammer? All the money we have?
Embry fumbled around feverishly and handed him her passport, which he studied for a few seconds. I got up my courage and looked up at him, shrugging my shoulders, giving him my puzzled look, trying to communicate in sign language that I had no idea what we had done wrong. He gave me a serious look back and then turned away and joined his colleague for a short discussion. He returned and said, “lights, lights,” then pointed at the headlights.
Lights, lights? What about the lights? Oh. I realized that the headlights were on, remembering I had forgotten to turn them off when leaving the garage. But since when was it a crime to drive with your headlights on? Then I realized that he was not talking just about the headlights but the fact that they were on bright rather than dim. But for goodness sake, it was noon; and there was not a cloud in the sky. And we were on a divided highway where you couldn’t even see the cars on the other side. But what really puzzled me was how could these guys even see that I had my brights on in such sunny conditions.
Now there are two ways to handle situations like this. One is to take a combative approach—which, of course, never works—questioning the stupid law that makes it illegal to drive with bright lights on in the middle of the day in bright sun. The second is to throw yourself at the feet of your adversary and to beg for mercy. I followed the latter approach.
Out of my mouth mysteriously popped the phrase, “Lo siento mucho, senior, lo siento mucho.” Embry’s guardian angel must have had had something to do with this because it had been so long that I had used this phrase that I was not exactly sure what it meant; but it worked, and the tension eased immediately. A slight smile appeared on his face. (The phrase simply means “I am very sorry,” and I must have said it at least a half dozen times.) During next phase of the encounter the officer provided instruction (in Spanish and sign language) on how to dim and brighten the headlights. Before it was all over, he was smiling broadly and wishing us well on our journey—at least I think that is what he was doing since I really had no idea what he was actually saying. But in any event we were free to continue on our journey. No fines, no jail time. I did not count the number of muchas gracias I said, but there were a lot.
But except for this incident we have not seen a police officer—a far cry from 1973 when they were on every corner and fully armed and Spain was in fact a police state. We tend to forget how far the country has come in a relatively short period of time. And Valencia—though it is certainly not without its problems and challenges—is a delight. Even with the language difficulties, we find we are able to communicate (sort of) and feel welcomed and accepted. The city of Valencia is very livable and charming, and the life style of late meals and long siestas in the mid afternoon gives us obsessed Americans reason to pause and wonder if our frantic life style really gets us anywhere. Only a couple of days left here before we head off to Madrid. We are going to miss Valencia.