Then and now

Navigating Spain in 1976, a year after Generalisimo Franco’s death, was trepidatious as a twenty year old American female. Thank goodness I did not have to do that on my own.

My best friend Lisa and I met on a junior year abroad program in Madrid. Lucy, meet Ethel. The peanut butter to my jelly, the yin to my yang, she is my lifelong soul sister, family and my person. She is written into my will. That’s the kind of love and relationship we have, outlasting past marriages and the passage of time, she is forever written into my story, past present and future.

Spain’s society back then was sexually oppressed. There were concierges who sat at the entrance of hostels to ensure no man went upstairs with us. We rarely saw women out for lunch or out at night. We were stared at where ever we went. The cat calls, or piropos, were relentless and addressed everything from our cleavage, to the size of our thighs and hair color. Not to mention proposals of sexual favors.  As much as we tried to fit in – attempting to copy the style of the Spanish women then – white shirts, black pants or skirts and boots, with little to no skin showing, the men picked us out and harassed us within taking 2 steps from our apartment. It was too much.

Walking anywhere with Lisa took this to another level. I had long blond hair, which was easy to conceal in a scarf, and big boobs, but not nearly as huge as Lisa’s. Hers were in the Dolly Parton league and growing fast since we ate our way through the country, gaining weight. New clothes were not in our student budget. Her shirts and sweaters grew tighter in proportion to her expanding bustline. I will never forget how a man smacked into a lamppost while gawking and looking back at her as he walked along with his young son, the both of them muttering something along the lines of “Quiero comerte enterro” and “Ay Ramona!” Ramona was a popular song about a fat woman whose breast were as large as dos cantarros de leche and whose thighs were like jamones serranos. If I heard “AY RUBIA!” one more time I was going to beat the guy with a jamon.

Since the university went on strike every other week or so, we had many opportunities to travel. We set out via train for Sevilla, and then would continue south to Algeciras to take a boat across the Straights of Gibraltor to Tanger. Every step of the journey was accompanied by piropos and staring. I really couldn’t take it anymore. I called Lisa by my nickname for her, “Turk, I can’t take it! We have to hide your boobs! We need to dress as nuns! Now! Right this minute!”  There were nuns all over, so it was not odd that this idea came to mind.

We purchased black frocks that widows from the Civil War still sported, as well as some nuns, from a sewing shop. We also bought material to make black wimples. A schlock souvenir store provided us with big wooden crosses. There you go. Instant nun. (Nun in a box?)

We entered the hostel as civilians and exited as nuns, laughing so hard that Lisa peed in her habit, right on the street near the Giralda in Sevilla. She looked ridiculous – with the poles of her backpack sticking straight up with the makeshift wimple draped over them. Bobby socks and whatever brown and sensible shoes she was wearing completed the hilarious outfit.

We boarded a bus for the train station and, for the first time ever, people asked us if we wanted a seat. It was a miracle. A nun sitting on the bench next to us asked what order we were from. We knew nothing about orders. I said “El Sagrado Corazon del Monte”. She said she thought she recognized our order by our crosses. Ours was the order of bullshit.

We were still harassed, but not as much while we were nuns. One man asked us why we chose this lifestyle so young. Then he tried to hit on us. The tour guide in Tangers saw right through our disguise, “Seesters,  we have a spechel deescount for seesters”… yeah right.

We had many adventures as Sister Maria and Theresa on that trip. We still smoked and drank as nuns, but you get the idea. We felt we needed to disguise our bodies to move about the cabin in peace, so to speak.

In those days, we were too visible. Today I could parade down Calle Mayor in feathers and half naked and nobody would care. Not that we are invisible, but nowadays women, foreign and otherwise, are targeted with respect rather than catcalls. I prefer the respect.

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