Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Hapsburg Palace Adventure

This is a personal story, from far before my move to Baltimore.  If the oversharing of personal details makes you even vaguely uncomfortable or the use of a word beyond "damn" is not your cup of tea, I suggest you go back to Facebook or Twitter, or wherever you may have come here from.  If this has not deterred you, read on, and enjoy one of my most absurd moments.

There comes a point in many a middle class college student’s life where they are bitten by the study-abroad bug.  Professors and parents persuade you that a few months of heavy drinking in a foreign country will broaden your world view and do minimal harm to your liver.  While my semester in Spain is now but a far-off, distant memory, it did help me expand my horizons past that of a sheltered American student while teaching me the classic Spanish tradition of combining coca cola with my red wine.  
El Escorial

A friend of mine, Reyna, had taken off the same week from classes as I, since we both had visitors in town; her sister and my college boyfriend.  We had coordinated to return to Salamanca together from the Madrid airport after dropping off our loved ones.  I was not at my best - I was feeling ill and was a mascara-running-down-my-face emotional wreck from saying goodbye to my boyfriend.  Reyna tried to lift my spirits through a stop for breakfast, since food usually could be guaranteed to lift my spirits.  A coffee, baguette with some jamon, a Spanish equivalent of what I believed to be Tums later, and I was still feeling grey.  As in, my innards felt the sensory equivalent of my complexion.  Reyna tried a new approach – why not make a stop at two historical Spanish landmarks on our way home?  El Escorial is a massive Hapsburg palace, and El Valle de los Caidos is Franco’s monument to those who died in the Spanish Civil War, and consequently his final resting place.  Both were on our way home, and she sold me on the carpe-diem nature of the adventure, indigestion and runny mascara be damned. 

We pulled into the small town where El Escorial is located, and I was struck with how this amazing palace dominated the entire city, much like how the Roman aqueduct is what dominates Segovia, or how indigestion was dominating my innards.  I stopped for a ginger ale, took another Spanish Tums and didn’t even question what Reyna handed me from a Ziploc bag of pills which she later assured me was heartburn medication.  I was here, I was going to see this palace.

I hobbled through the gardens, taking pictures so I could recall the beauty later, my inner torment distracting me from the moment.  There were views of the rolling countryside framed by a majestic monument, a serene reflecting pool.  I spent much of the time sitting on a wall, telling myself that I couldn’t just swing by Hapsburg palaces in my daily life, and that, hey!  Mind over matter!  Stop being a weakling.  Appreciate this.

After my pep talk with myself and my stomach, we joined a tour group inside.  With every new notable bedroom, historic hallway and servants quarters we entered, my issues became more serious.  Instead of loud stomach equivalents of a serenade, my auditory offerings to the tour took on a more gaseous nature.  Every step I took produced a high-decibel toot that, try though I may, I could not disguise.

Reyna, myself, our tour guide, and large tour group stepped into the expansive dining hall to learn about all the banquets and royalty that had enjoyed the now painfully empty, echoing space, over many generations.  My stomach offered a low-rumble preamble, and I gulped.  I gulped hoping to calm my stomach, and I gulped because I knew what was coming was going to be severe.  I began to sweat and I’m sure the grey drained out of my face.

I couldn’t stop it; there was no way.  I knew it was coming, but it was beyond my control.  It began in my throat and reverberated down to my stomach, through my intestines, and then… it ripped.  It ripped loudly, in this empty, echoing, expansive dining hall where royalty had feasted hundreds of years prior.  Before I could be properly ashamed of myself, I froze.

I hadn’t just farted in the Hapsburg dining hall.  This wasn’t just any fart.  This was tangible.  The tour had frozen.  All eyes were on me, and all I could bother my mind with was the state of my pants. Reyna leaned in to me and whispered.

“……..are you… alright?”
“I think, no, I know, I need to run to the restroom.  I’ll catch up.”

I fled to the restroom to do damage control.  The situation was, expectedly, bad.  This being a Spanish restroom, there was naturally no toilet paper to be found.  In my few months in this country, I had learned to always carry some tissues with me for just this sort of emergency, but as Murphy’s Law would have it, I was unprepared. 

“Shit,” I thought, in all the applicable ways.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I did what anyone in my circumstances would have done.  I gathered all the receipts from my wallet and got creative.  Once I had the circumstances under control, I thoroughly washed my hands and splashed water on my face, not caring that it would drip down and have to air dry.  You reach a point where you just stop caring, and that point is definitely any point after you’ve shit your pants.

I spent the remainder of the tour hovering around the back of the group.  I couldn’t focus; all I could think about was the fact that my pants were a mess, that I probably had a very high fever, and that I had sharted in the dining hall of past  royals.  Shame had washed over me, like the plebeian American I was.

Once the tour was completed, Reyna and I got back in the car.  She turned to me,
“We don’t have to go to El Valle, you know,” she assured me.  “If you’re not feeling up to it, we can just go back home.”
What could possibly happen that would be more mortifying than what already had gone down?  No.  I would be a hero.  We would power on.
“No, no no I’ll be fine.  Let’s go.  Carpe diem and all that.”
“Alright, if you’re sure…”

El Valle de los Caidos is eerie.  Built under the guise of a monument, it’s really just an elaborate tomb for Franco that he designed.  From afar, the giant cross can be seen rising out of the rockface of the mountains.  Creepy though it may be, it truly is a sight to behold.

El Valle de los Caidos

 As we drove up the mountain, I knew I was going to have to attend to matters before entering the church/shrine/tomb.   We parked the car and I saw a don jon at the corner of the parking lot.  I asked Reyna to pop the trunk, and I dug through the week’s worth of dirty clothes that were with me.  I pulled out the least offensive pair of used undergarments and headed to the plastic restroom.

The church was fascinating, the Spanish countryside on the drive home was lovely and idyllic, reminiscent of Cervantes’ Don Quijote.  To this day, it was possibly the most ridiculous day of my life - I had desecrated a royal palace, among other choice milestones of the trip.  Finally crawling under my sheets, defeated by the day, I closed my eyes knowing I had left my mark on Spain. 

My ruined underwear was lying where it belonged – in a don jon by Franco’s tomb.

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