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As I sat studying in Widener on March 11, I received news from Madrid: More than a hundred people dead, many more injured and numerous commuter trains mutilated in the biggest terrorist attack Spain had ever experienced. The same trains that I had taken every day to school for four months during the fall semester now lay in a tangled mess strewn across the platforms of suburban rail stations and along the narrow tracks on their approach to the Atocha train station. Dear friends, many of whom shared the daily commute with me, remained an ocean away, out of direct contact. Luckily no one I knew was hurt.
When I returned to Madrid at the end of May, I didn’t know what to expect. Would the jubilation and excitement of a city I had grown to know and love be extinguished by the terrorists’ bombs? Flying through Charles de Gaulle airport, I saw the newly collapsed terminal, its glass shingles cascading into a pile of debris that had yet to be collected and removed by the authorities. I expected to find the same shattered heap at Atocha; rather, everything is intact, the station’s pristine vaulted terminal gleaming in the early summer sunshine.
Indeed, Madrid, like the former site of sorrow and destruction, seems as vibrant and glistening as ever. When I arrived, the city had just celebrated the marriage of the crown prince Felipe of Borbon to, in the term used by the Spanish press, the plebeyana—plebian—Letizia Ortiz. The happy couple’s glossy faces shone from every gossip magazine, and commemorative plates, cookies, stemware and t-shirts stood proudly in every store window. Was this just a fairytale dream to sustain the masses that, braving a late-spring rain shower, crowded the streets of Madrid on May 22 in hopes of gaining a glimpse at the future king and his bride?
While I find all this obsession over the monarchy ridiculous, this wedding means a lot to a nation that has suffered a tumultuous past and continues to suffer its stigmatizing effects. Democracy has only recently returned to Spain after Franco’s long dictatorship (December 8, 2003 was the 25th anniversary of the current constitution). Though Franco died in 1975, he left a great impression on the city and the nation, and many of the older generations still cling to his memory. Friends visiting abroad have been asked if there are cars in Spain or if españoles go around in horse-drawn buggies. (They actually did until well into the 1950s.) This country, which fell far behind other Western European countries, has come far in the last 20-odd years, but still the stereotype that Spain, and Spaniards, are old-fashioned continues to linger.
The crown prince, however, has stepped away from tradition and towards modernity: rather than choose another plain virginal princess from an inbred royal family—as his father did when he chose the regal Sofia of Greece, who has produced some ugly, slightly deranged princesses—Felipe elected a modern woman, divorced, in her thirties and with a firm head on her shoulders (she was a successful journalist before assuming her current role as Princesa de Asturias).
Felipe’s choice, looked down upon by other members of the royal family, acknowledges our times, allowing an accomplished outsider to enter into the cloistered fairy tale of kings and queens. Spain’s hallowed customs now find firm footing in our modern times.
Similar to the modernization of the monarchy is the recent election of President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. As I sipped sangria with my friend Cesar—an economics student with communist tendencies—we discussed the lasting impression of Spain’s backwardness. Cesar felt that the recent election of Zapatero would finally change this image. The president has already proposed making abortions more accessible and even legalizing gay marriage. What once seemed alien in a traditionally Catholic country now has become accepted. While many, especially within the United States, criticized his decision to bring back the troops from Iraq, Spaniards beam at the mention of their president’s actions, which reflected the voice of the people—almost 90 percent were opposed to the war. Democracy and modernity are succeeding, even in the face of terror and destruction.
Walking along the street, old and young chatter pleasantly in the twilight of a summer’s day. But, in the words Hemingway famously immortalized, the sun also rises. And here, in a country once the most powerful in the world, then lost and forgotten, the sun seems to be rising once again.
Sophie L. Gonick ’05, a history concentrator in Winthrop House, is an editorial editor of The Crimson. She is hoping to snag a Spanish prince for herself this summer. She promises the children won’t be ugly or slightly deranged.
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