Farewell at El Escorial
It’s been more than a year since I left Spain, but every now and again certain details resurface, catching me at quiet moments and leaving me with a pervasive sense of longing. Among them I recall the sound of Salamanca’s cathedral bells, the intense, woody smell emanating from a jamón shop, and the taste and vivid crimson of a tinto de verano.
Elena explains that San Lorenzo de El Escorial, in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, was the town where she grew up. To the rest of the world it’s known as the setting of a monumental royal monastery, built as a representation of a stronger brand of Catholicism, arising in response to the Protestant Reformation that swept across 16th century Europe. Impressive in its scale and unashamedly austere, the complex remains a potent symbol of an illustrious age, when Spain ruled an empire stretching to the ends of the earth.
We amble through the Gardens of the Friar, running alongside the southern flank of the royal monastery. Beyond the clipped hedges and fountains, Madrid stretches over the distant plains, beneath the endless blue of the Castilian sky. On the horizon the four towers of Chamartín are visible through the summer haze.
Elena had traded the Spanish lifestyle for the hectic pace of Hong Kong, whose unrelenting work ethic and high-strung environment pushed many of my friends overseas. A recently retired high school teacher had summarised it perfectly. “You work your bum off and then you end up with a pile of loot. The question then is: what do you do with it?”
I had met Elena during her first year in Hong Kong, when she replaced our Spanish teacher who had just gone on maternity leave. It was a muggy September day outside and we had just settled into the classroom on the fourth floor of a narrow, ageing office building. A few minutes before the hour Elena sauntered in with a casual smile – by all accounts she could only have been a few years my senior.
When posed with the question of why she chose Hong Kong, our new teacher offered a straightforward answer. “For my boyfriend,” she replied nonchalantly, “he’s Chinese.”
After a lunch of deep fried squid rings and patatas bravas, chunks of potato served with a piquant tomato sauce, Elena asks if I would like to visit the palace. We eye the long queue snaking into the entrance, waiting patiently at a row of X-ray scanners and security personnel. I decide to say no. Perhaps it was a case of museum fatigue – having just visited the palace of La Granja just a few days before, I was less than enthused to see the vast library and the pantheon of Spanish kings, which Elena remembers, “had a bad odor.”
Instead we take the short drive to meet her father, brother and beloved cat. At first my eyes are unaccustomed to the darkness of the ground floor flat. The curtains have been drawn to keep out the hot summer sun, and halfway along the wall an old piano stands among the piles of books and family portraits.
Elena’s papá is comfortably seated in an armchair by the window, sporting a calm, serious demeanor. I feel as though I’ve intruded on their private lives, and after a quick introduction the air is bereft of words. I wonder how Joe, her boyfriend of the past few years, has dealt with the language barrier. Elena’s elder brother seems to be having a siesta in the next room. The cat soon emerges from the kitchen, and he’s as handsome as in the photos, but my nose is beginning to run. I have lived with dogs for most of my life, so an allergic reaction of this kind comes as a real surprise.
The awkward silence is only broken when Elena’s father lapses into fluid conversation, as if someone had flipped a switch. I do my best to keep up, but my eyes are watering and I am finding it increasingly hard not to sneeze.
Back inside the car, Elena laughs. “My father – he thought you were just like Joe – that you didn’t speak a word of Spanish!”
In no time we are navigating a series of switchbacks, snaking up the mountain towards the viewpoints overlooking the town. Elena takes me to see the Seat of Felipe II, a rough throne carved into a hilltop boulder so the king could watch the construction of his royal monastery from afar.
Eventually we pull up at a reservoir, grinding to a halt on the gravel a few paces away from the jetty. Against a backdrop of small boats piled up on the shore, we are the only patrons at the lakeside café, where we relax at a table under the shade of a young ash tree. I tuck into a few assorted nuts and a generous copa of my drink of choice, tinto de verano. My love affair with the summer drink began two years ago when I accidentally ordered a glass in an offbeat bar in Lavapiés, an inner-city neighbourhood of Madrid.
Before we know it, the sun begins its slow descent from a position high above the rippling lake. With Elena I drink a farewell toast – to a nation I have called home for the past nine months, and an experience that has changed my life forever.