My brother-in-law, Alberto, had a client in need of a painter this spring. So one day we drove out to the village of Cuacos de Yuste in the Valle de la Vera, where the gout-ridden Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor, spent his final months in 1558, to take a look at the job.¹ It was slightly daunting. An enormous four-story summer house built into a steep hillside, it had decorative planks of wood attached to the façade in a weak attempt to copy the traditional architecture of the area, the Sierra de Gredos. Half of them were rotten and needed to be replaced. We were going to need a lot of scaffolding as well as a crane to get up and over a wall connected to the hotel/restaurant next door. I gave him an insanely high price because I really didn’t want the job. Much to my dismay, the client gave us the thumbs up.
Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor
Only after I was committed to the job did my brother-in-law tell me who the client was, and for good reason. If I’d known the house belonged to Bruno, I would have said no from the get-go.
Bruno es un pesado, a giant pain in the ass. About 10 years ago he built a small mansion with stables for his horses in the Valle del Jerte. I painted the place. He had this dream of opening a riding school, or at least that’s what he told his family to rationalize spending so much money. (The riding school never happened.)
The mansion in the Jerte Valley (which the builders nicknamed “Brunolandia”) is surrounded by cherry orchards and olive groves. It’s a spectacularly beautiful rural setting. One day I was painting a shed for storing hay bales and I saw a giant hairy spider up against the wall just outside the door. There were a few other guys working around the place so I thought one of them was trying to pull a prank on me. Let’s put this big rubber spider here and scare the Yank. I stood there for a good long time watching it, waiting for it to move. Nothing. Nah… that’s fake. I walked away to go do something and when I came back it was in the exact same spot. Again, I stood there for ages watching it. Nothing. That’s a helluva realistic fake spider…
I walked over to the edge of the woods and picked up a long stick. Then, very gently, I poked the spider. A hind leg twitched and it stood to attention waiting for trouble. The stick flew out of my hand as I ran for my life. I heard this strange high-pitched noise which I soon realized was coming from me. I was screeching like a little girl. I’d seen big hairy spiders before, in aquariums, in pet stores, and at the exotic animal shows they used to put on at the local shopping mall when I was a kid (how were those things even legal?), but I had never seen one that big and that hairy just going about its business in the real world.
Another day, up on a hillside where Bruno had a little chapel built, (fully equipped with Bibles, handmade wooden benches, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and – I shit you not – a marble bowl on a pedestal containing holy water) I saw a large yellow-brown mantis. It was mesmerizing. I went in for a closer look and squatted down next to it. The damn thing took flight and started dive-bombing me. I was running in circles swatting at it with my baseball hat and I lost my balance and fell down. The horrible creature was in no mood for games. It landed nearby and a small bird swooped in, most likely thinking the mantis would be an easy meal. No such luck. The mantis started making this menacing sound, like a snake hissing and spitting and carrying on. Then, it lunged at the bird. The bird, startled, got knocked off balance and rolled in the dirt before making its escape. I never saw anything like it. I steered clear of that area for the rest of the day.
Nature is scary
The best thing, or two best things, about working at Brunolandia were:
One: the life-size painting Bruno had commissioned of himself decked out in full military regalia, mounted on a horse like some ridiculous little Spanish Napolean. After I painted the grand staircase Bruno hung his pride and joy above the half landing. My brother-in-law let me in on a little secret, as he and Bruno were friends growing up. Bruno’s family has friends in high places so he got out of la mili : the year of mandatory military service that all Spanish boys had to perform after high school. (Mandatory military service in Spain was abolished in 2001.)
Two: there were four loudspeakers attached to the outside of the house. Every hour on the hour a patriotic song, a military march or a piece of classical music would play. Sometimes it was the “Himno de Extremadura” or Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (the only piece of classical music I recognized) or “Cara al Sol” (“Facing the Sun”), the anthem of the Falange, the only political party allowed to exist during the Francoist dictatorship.
Every time the speakers kicked on, the carpenter, the gardener, the builders and I would all hurry down to the three flag poles in front of the sand riding arena and stand at attention.² The object was to see who could last the longest without cracking up. The loser was in charge of bringing the litronas (one liter bottles of beer) the next day. (Quite a few empty litrona bottles got cemented into the walls of Brunolandia during that job.)
“How can a person spend so much money on horses and cars and an Olympic-size swimming pool… and then build a house with no kitchen?!” said the carpenter one day.
He was exaggerating about the size of the pool, but not about the kitchen. Bruno built a house without a kitchen. We couldn’t make heads or tails of this for months until one day a neighbor (who was in the process of making a formal complaint about the loudspeakers pumping fascist anthems all across the countryside at full blast 24 hours a day) informed us that Bruno’s mother lived in a cottage nearby. Then my brother-in-law confirmed our suspicions: Bruno’s plan was to eat all of his meals at his mother’s house. What a strange little man…
Back to the summer house in Cuacos de Yuste with the rotten planks of wood. I mentioned that Bruno es un pesado, a pain in the ass. The first thing I did at Cuacos was paint the interior patio. A couple of guys helped me set up three levels of scaffolding and I spent two days painting it in a color called piedra (stone) that Bruno had picked out. Then we tore down the scaffolding and I started painting the wooden balconies. Bruno visited over the weekend and left one of his famous notes which I found on Monday morning. It read: “No me gusta el color. Lo prefiero en rojo inglés.” (“I don’t like the color. I prefer English red.”)
I called up my brother-in-law. After a lot of swearing he sent me two of his guys. We spent half a day putting the scaffolding up again and I spent two days repainting the patio. Then we tore down the scaffolding, again, and I started staining the new planks of wood for the façade. Bruno came for another visit the following weekend. Monday morning I found another note waiting for me: “Ahora estoy pensando que vamos a dejar la parte de arriba en rojo inglés y pintamos la parte de abajo en piedra otra vez.” (“Now I’m thinking we´ll leave the upper half of the interior patio in English red, and we’ll paint the lower half in stone again.”)
This went on for over two months. He’d choose a color and I’d paint something. Then he’d leave me a note and I’d repaint everything. Exasperating. But he was paying for it so what can you do?
The worst thing about painting out on the street in Spain is that every third or fourth person that walks by yells, “¡El pintor qué pinta con amor!” (“Painter that paints with love!”) This is a line (slightly altered) from the poem “Píntame angelitos negros” by the Venezuelan poet Andrés Eloy Blanco. Everybody in Spain seems to be familiar with the words because the Cuban singer of boleros and romantic ballads, Antonio Machín, had a massive hit with his version of “Angelitos negros” in the 1950s.
So many people have come up to me while I was painting and shouted, “¡Pintor qué pintas con amor!” that I finally decided to learn the next line of the song.
One day in Cuacos, up on the scaffolding, I heard somebody down below yell, “¡Pintor qué pintas con amor!”
My big moment had finally arrived. I yelled back, “¿Por qué desprecias su color?” (“Why do you despise your color?”) (It’s a song about racial discrimination.)
“¡Bájate a tomar un café conmigo, pintor!” (“Come down and have a coffee with me, painter!”)
The church bells had just chimed ten o´clock so I climbed down and joined the old fella at Rubén’s, the café around the corner. I ordered a coffee and, much to my dismay, he ordered a whiskey on the rocks. It became obvious as soon as I tried to start up a conversation that he was already three sheets to the wind.
I quickly drank my coffee and ate the little plate of fried pig face the waiter put in front of me. When the old fella was turned around mumbling nonsense to another unfortunate customer, I handed Rubén a euro and slipped out the door.
He walked by my scaffolding every morning after that and asked me to join him at the café. I always politely declined. Then he’d ramble for a bit, half to me, half to himself, and I’d yell general statements down at him.
“¿Qué podemos hacer?” (“What can we do?”)
“¡Las cosas son así!” (“That’s the way things are!”)
One morning I threw him a curveball with, “¡Creo que es un asunto ecuménico!” (“I do believe that’s an ecumenical affair!”)
Completely unfazed, he just kept on rambling.
The old fella always had a dog with him, a hyperactive boxer. After making the rounds of the four bars on the main street, he and the boxer would climb the steep hill next to Bruno’s place and disappear into the woods. Watching them slip into the cool shade of the forest always made me jealous. There I was up on the scaffolding, sweating under the sun, and the village drunk’s having the time of his life tramping around in the woods with a dog!
Last day on the job. My brother-in-law said he’d send one of his guys to pick up all the rotten planks of wood. I was pleasantly surprised when Felix pulled up. I hadn’t seen him in ages. Felix is in his mid-50s, about 20 years older than most of his co-workers. They all refer to him as “el lobo solitario” (the lone wolf) because he prefers to work alone. He doesn’t have a whole lot of patience for nonsense or chit-chat.
What I find most interesting about Felix is that he’s a “Manowarrior”. That is, he’s a die-hard fan of the heavy metal band Manowar, whose slogan is “Death to false metal”. Manowar holds a couple of world records: one for the loudest live performance, and another for the longest heavy metal concert, after they played a five hour gig in Bulgaria.
It’s easy to tell when Felix has had a few too many at my brother-in-law’s barbecues. He walks over to me sheepishly while thoughtfully stroking his impressive graying pony tail. Before he manages to ask a single question he starts apologizing.
“Tío, no quiero molestarte, pero…” (“Man, I don’t want to bother you, but…”)
I brace myself. I know from past experience what’s coming.
“¿Qué significa, ‘By moonlight we ride, Ten thousand side by side, With swords drawn held high, Our whips and armours shine’?”
“Manowar. Es una canción que se llama “Battle Hymn”. Es la última canción de su primer disco.” (“Manowar. It’s a song called “Battle Hymn”. It’s the last song on their first album.”)
I have to admit, his pronunciation isn’t that bad for a guy who doesn’t speak a word of English other than what he’s taught himself from listening to Manowar albums.
Death to false metal!
Felix seems to have a strange fondness for me. Maybe it’s because Manowar and I have something in common: we’re both American. Or maybe it’s because we shared a somewhat disturbing moment together on a job a few years back.
I was strimming my way through a patch of waist-high brambles and he was working with a chainsaw nearby. Above the noise of the machines I thought I heard a faint shout. I looked over my shoulder and saw Felix just standing there. The chainsaw was lying on the ground next to him. His protective face mask was splattered with blood. I unclipped my strimmer and ran over in his direction, expecting the worst. If I see bone I’m gonna puke…
He was working close to the ground, down low where a lentisco shrub had sprouted dozens of new branches that had to go. In the tangle of weeds and dead leaves he had accidentally sliced un escuerzo, a large horned frog, right through the belly. The poor creature was upside down, writhing and twitching away its last moments. Felix felt terrible. He started pacing back and forth anxiously.
“¿Qué hacemos? ¡¿Qué hacemos?!” (“What do we do? What do we do?!”)
“Tranquilo. No te preocupes.” (“Relax. Don’t worry.”)
“¿No te preocupes? ¡Mira lo que he hecho! ¡El pobre animal!” (“Don’t worry? Look what I did! The poor animal!”)
I had no idea he was so sensitive, but it makes perfect sense. The leather jacket… the homemade tattoos… the motorcycle… All signs of an extremely sensitive person trying to hide the fact.
“Pues, tienes que matarlo. Está sufriendo, tio.” (Well, you have to kill it. It’s suffering, man.”)
“¡Hazlo tú!” (“You do it!”)
“Ni de coña.” (“No fucking way.”)
He paced back and forth a few more times, then fired up the chainsaw. He took a deep breath and gave the poor creature the coup de grâce. He didn’t say another word for the rest of that day.
Felix and I tossed the rotten planks into the back of his van and grabbed a quick beer at Rubén’s before he started out on the long haul back to Plasencia. It was still early so I threw my brushes, rollers, buckets and blankets in the car and drove up to the German Cemetery to have a look around.
Leaving Cuacos, if you follow the signs to the monastery, there is a sombre little place half-hidden among the olive trees off to the right. This is known as el cementerio Alemán, the German Cemetery. Here lie the remains of 182 German soldiers from the First and Second World Wars who died on Spanish soil. Some were Luftwaffe pilots that crashed in Spain, others were submarine crew whose bodies washed up on the Spanish coast. The graves are all marked with a simple dark granite cross which contains the name of the soldier, his military rank, and date of birth and death. The bodies were scattered across Spain until 1983 when they were moved to Cuacos under an agreement with the German government.
I parked in the shade of an acorn oak. I got out of the car and stood there for a moment listening to the birds. Almost summer. Everything smelled of rosemary and lavender. There wasn’t another human being in sight. What a peaceful spot… Then, out of nowhere, the village drunk’s overexcitable boxer came tearing out of the woods, sprinted across the road, and disappeared into the trees again.
I opened the wooden gate and strolled through the cemetery. The graves are laid out in perfectly straight rows. I read the names of the deceased. Karl Schmidt. Ernst Neumann. Johannes Bockler. Alfred Hartmann. Sobering stuff. I walked over to one end of the graveyard where the trees open up and you get an impressive view of the Vera Valley down below. And lying there in the shade of an olive tree was the village drunk, peacefully snoring away. So this is where he goes every day after his pub crawl…
el cementerio Alemán, Cuacos de Yuste
¹ The Yuste Monastery where Carlos V (aka: Carlos I of Spain) retired with his 60+ member entourage is quite the tourist attraction these days. Unfortunately, when I visited the place, about 5 years ago, you could only enter with a tour guide and the tour was only available in Spanish (much to my parents’ dismay).
² Bruno, like all fascists, has a fascination with flags. He changed two flags every weekend. The third flag, which he never changed, was la bandera de España (aka: “la Rojigualda”), the Spanish flag. Spaniards don’t fly their country’s flag the way people do in the US. It’s not normal to see Spanish flags in people’s gardens, attached to people’s mail boxes, or on bumper stickers. The Spanish flag is still very much associated with Franco’s nearly 40 year run as dictator. (Unless, of course, we’re in the middle of the World Cup, but that’s another story.)