A gap year in Franco’s Spain

Downtown Madrid, 1970s. Photo credit: Victor Albert Grigas, Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

I probably know more than the average English person about fascist Spain. There are two reasons for this. The first was that in my gap year, aged 18, straight after school, I went with one of my closest friends to work in a kindergarten in Madrid. The second reason was that, quite coincidentally, I went on to marry a man whose uncle had fled from Spain because he’d been on Franco’s death list. I’ve written about his story elsewhere

In 1971, before mobile phones, the internet and social media, most ordinary people were largely unaware of what went on in other countries. Apart from that, there was the fact that before joining the Common Market (later the EU), foreign travel was not as widespread as it is now.

By the same author:

Divided Spain

My friend and I arrived at the school where we were to teach English (though we were clueless about teaching at the time). We were to live in a shared room in the grounds. The kindergarten was situated in beautiful surroundings with a swimming pool, along a tree-lined avenue in a fashionable suburb of Madrid. The pupils were the children (aged 18 months to five years old) of the rich inhabitants of that particular area of the city. 

It soon became very apparent that there were two classes of people in Spain: those with reasonable jobs who were wealthy (usually admirers of Franco); and those who had very basic subsistence jobs and struggled on the margins of society (often socialists, those who found Franco abhorrent in other words). It’s probably fair to say that my friend and I both had our eyes well and truly opened.

In contrast, back home in England, despite our political problems, there was a strong welfare state, a health service free at the point of need, free university tuition and plenty of jobs. 

We arrived in late August to quite a different place. The end of summer, in Spain, was warm and beautiful, but it was obvious that many people were struggling and looked unhappy.

Posters for El Corte Inglés, Madrid 1970s. Photo credit: Victor Albert Grigas, Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Kindergarten inequalities

In the kindergarten, there were staff who ‘lived in’ apart from us.  Two young girls in their early twenties and a cook, Carmen, lived in a rudimentary converted garage, the door of which was hanging off. Carmen was probably in her forties and suffered with terrible toothache. I asked her in my limited Spanish why she didn’t go to the dentist; she replied that she couldn’t afford it. 

Outside in the grounds was a small wooden hut, the size of a large garden shed, constructed of wooden slats. In this ‘shed’ was our favourite maid, Maria, who was really like our ‘mum’ in Spain.  Her husband was the gardener/ groundsman and smoked the cheapest cigarettes that it was possible to buy. Sometimes if we ran out of cigarettes we would buy a couple off him and repay him later with packs of the more upmarket Ducados. Maria and her husband had two daughters who were in their early teens. We were invited into their tiny house, which was very cosy, but bitingly cold because a wooden shack was no protection from a bitter cold winter in Madrid – as we discovered once the warmth of late summer had faded away.

Being the age we were, we’d often go out to bars or late night shopping (at El Corte Inglés) and eat out cheaply before coming home to our freezing room in the school. We had to be in before midnight or the large gates would be locked, and a couple of times we somehow scaled those walls in the early hours of the morning. When we arrived back at the school, we would see Maria and the other maids in the kitchen cooking. I thought they’d be cooking paella, but no, that was unaffordable for them. They were frying …hen’s feet (yes, the claws). We were always offered some; we always politely declined.

Young opponents of Franco

We met so many interesting people out and about in downtown Madrid, which in many ways seemed almost provincial compared to cosmopolitan London. However, despite an intangible sadness, Madrid was hauntingly beautiful, with fiestas, music and very cheap Cuba Libre (Spanish rum and coke). 

One day, we met a young bearded man who became our friend, called Michelangelo. He told us how many of his friends had been incarcerated in cells (some had been stabbed) for handing out anti-Franco leaflets. Another friend was Javier, a student who lived in a pueblo (a rock-like dwelling backing on to a mountain) with other students. He and his friends had stories to tell about the anti-Franco protests, which were all done covertly as the reprisals were too great. We also met Angel (roughly pronounced ‘Ankel’), who was friends with Antonio and a few other young men from wealthier homes whose parents, I suspect, were supporters of Franco.

Franco’s burial place, Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen). Photo credit: Godot13, Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

A Franco supporter

One weekend, the headmistress/owner of the kindergarten, an avid admirer of Franco, took us to see ‘The Valley of the Fallen’. This was a huge mausoleum-like tomb built for General Franco to be buried in when he died – although it was ostensibly built to commemorate all those who died, on both sides of the political divide. It was/is a huge white building with pillars and a huge crucifix on the hill behind it. As the name suggests, it was situated in a (then) deserted valley surrounded by nothing. It was certainly sinister.

On another occasion, we were taken by the headmistress to La Puerta del Sol to hear General Franco speak to worshipping crowds. My friend reminded me of this recently, but I have no recollection of it – perhaps it’s just as well.

Claire Hill after her gap year, aged 19. Photo credit: author’s own.

Looking back

There were many wonderful times in Madrid, but I was always aware of some intangible sadness and undercurrents of violence waiting to erupt. I was so pleased to return to the happier United Kingdom. My year in Spain was an experience that has remained with me and gave me true insight into what living in a fearful and divided society was like. This profound experience has helped inform my political views and ideas about freedom of expression.

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