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Jack Smith

Misadventures Are Routine for Some Travelers

November 10, 1987|Jack Smith

I am not going to write a travelogue on Iberia. That has been done. I merely hope to recall some of our misadventures. To me, travel is half misadventure.

We flew direct to Madrid and stayed for three nights at the Wellington, a fine old English-style hotel with a pub that the Iron Duke himself might have loved.

First we caught a cab for the Prado. There we stood before Goya's "Clothed Maja" and "Unclothed Maja," more candidly known as the "Naked Maja." My wife's only comment was that she didn't think the Maja was that much to look at. Oh, well, she hadn't liked the Mona Lisa, either. At least the Prado wasn't as paranoid as the Louvre. The Majas weren't under glass.

I liked the "Naked Maja" best. Her nakedness seems to explain her sullen defiance. She seems to be saying: "And how do you like that , my good man!"

The detail of her nakedness is erotic. Goya painted each tiny body hair explicitly. I don't know how he ever escaped the Inquisition.

I could still feel outrage as I stood before his painting of the French firing squad executing Spanish patriots in the street. A few minutes later we climbed the hill to a separate building and stood before Picasso's "Guernica." Somehow he had made the victims seem as monstrous as the bombers.

Here, within a few hundred yards of each other, we had seen perhaps the world's two greatest paintings of social protest.

Social protest is still brewing in Madrid as in all great cities. At Cafe Gijon, historic meeting place of the young intellectuals, we still found them debating passionately over their coffees or aperitifs. They were young, beautiful, bohemian. We overheard not a word of English. For a moment, we had escaped the tourist hordes.

That evening we had cocktails at the Palace Hotel with Artie Pine, my New York agent, and his wife, Harriette. Artie was chagrined over a miscalculation in tipping a porter at the airport. He had given him 1,000 pesetas, thinking it was only 80 cents, then given him another, thinking "Why not be a sport?--It's only pesetas." He had just discovered that 1,000 pesetas was $8, not 80 cents.

I had brought a pocket calculator to avoid such traps, but I could never figure out what to divide by what, and my wife had to figure it out in her head.

(Pine's error must have seemed trivial enough a couple of days later when a young man attacked his wife in the Plaza del Sol, knocked her down and ran off with her purse, containing all her jewelry and her passport. "What could I do?" Artie moaned on the telephone. "The kid was 19 years old! I'm just Artie Pine. From Long Island.")

That first evening we wanted to go to La Bola, a restaurant recommended for its Old World charm. It was supposed to have been where Ava Gardner took her bullfighter friends.

The doorman at the Palace, who looked like the Mad Hatter, put us into a cab and told the driver "La Bola." The driver obviously didn't know where La Bola was. Impatiently the doorman waved him on.

He started out like a rocket, raced for the old part of town and began careening up and down narrow streets and going around in circles. We sat rigid with anxiety. He stopped on a dime and consulted another cabbie. Big gestures. He started out again, making some of the same circles. He stopped to consult another cabbie. More arm waving.

My wife said: "He must be a student."

He overheard. "I am taxi driver!" he shouted. He stopped to consult a man working on an engine with a monkey wrench.

"I believe he's got it," I said.

Ultimately we whipped into a narrow one-way street and I saw the sign "La Bola."

"La Bola!" the driver bellowed as he brought us to a lurching stop. His honor had been saved. The memory of that cab driver's embarrassment was to get me through many a dark moment of my own.

Ava Gardner was not at La Bola. Nor was hardly anyone else. A framed movie still of the actress hung on the wall, along with pictures of some macho men whom I took to be her bullfighter friends.

Here I was, first time in Madrid, and already I was feeling nostalgic for the good old days.

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