Alumni Profile

Sketches of Spain

by Janet (Yoshida) Kessler

UCEAP Study Abroad Program, Spain 1964-65

Janet with current UCSB student at All Gaucho Reunion, April 2014


Whenever I hear the beautiful Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo, the music, rich and evocative transports me back to Spain. I find myself squinting my eyes against the Spanish sun. Could it be so different from the California sun? Perhaps it is the way the sun in Spain contrasts sharply with the narrow dark streets created by old buildings crouching together to produce deep cooling shade. Memories of the year I lived in Spain have faded, but some remain, unforgettable and indelible. The year was 1965. I was a young impressionable student. Life in Spain was completely different from the life I knew in California. It was as different as the contrast between sol y sombra, sun and shade. I went to Madrid as part of the Education Abroad Program from the University of California at Berkeley. Our group came from many branches of the UC system. It was the first year the study center in Madrid opened. We had two professors from the UC system as our advisors.

I lived on an elegant street in Madrid, Calle Serrano just down the street from the American Embassy. Our flat was on the second floor, my room above one of the many sidewalk cafes in the city. I lived with the widow, Carmen Cavanillas, and her daughter, Maria Jesus. Senora Cavanillas was widowed as were vast numbers of women by the Spanish Civil War. You could not meet anyone who had not been touched by the civil war. The Senora generally wore black as was the custom of most women at the time. If a close family member died, you wore black for the rest of your days. Maria Jesus was a lovely young woman, stylish and charming, and worked for the tourism bureau. I loved my room which was bright and sunny with high ceilings and tall French doors looking out onto Calle Serrano. I had a little bed that I sank into every night with no support from the mattress, but my youth spared me any backaches.

Standing on my tiny balcon (balcony) watching the activity on the street was a favorite past time. There were many chauffeur driven automobiles parked along the street. These were generally not Mercedes or limousines. Most of them were tiny Seats, the Spanish version of the little Italian Fiat, a car as small as a Ford Fiesta. Fully uniformed chauffeurs could be seen opening the doors for their grand passengers. Some were military men as you can imagine was the case at that time. Officers in tan uniforms, their chests bristling with ribbons and medals, would exit their matchbook size cars. Spain was still terribly poor and backward at the time. Franco was still in power and had been for 25 years. It was as if the Civil War had just ended in terms of the economy and the bitter feelings of the various opposing sides. Everywhere in Madrid there were signs proclaiming “25 anos de paz” to commemorate Francoʼs long regime. But the people would say,”25 anos de pez” substituting fish for peace to indicate their poverty. I didnʼt mind the backwardness of the country since it contrasted more with the U.S. Why travel thousands of miles to live in a place thatʼs no different from home. Our plumbing frequently broke down and someone told me the buildings were so old, some of the pipes were of porcelain. The cobblestone streets were always being repaired. The workmen did not wear uniforms like Caltrans or T-shirts like construction workers in the U.S. The men wore suit jackets of coarse material, but still what appeared to be suit jackets and slacks.

The sight of children working was a shock. I went to a nightclub one evening and boys of eight or nine were bussing tables. They were working at night in what was essentially a bar. In my apartment building, there was a couturier on the first floor. I became friends with a little girl, about seven years old who worked there. She was sent out on errands to buy thread and buttons. I assume she was being trained to become a seamstress. Spain at that time appeared composed of either the rich or the poor with only a small middle class. Exquisitely coifed and designer dressed women paraded down the boulevard. Occasionally I saw a poor woman squat down on the sidewalk to urinate by a tree. Our own little household had a live-in maid and a weekly washerwoman.

Let me tell you how my daily routine went. The maid or the senora served me breakfast in bed. The covered tray always had a cup of fragrant cafe con leche, two
small pieces of delicious toasted bread served with thick honey and a pastry. I quickly became accustomed to this luxury. It was especially nice in winter since there was no central heating and the heat in my room consisted of a tiny electric space heater. I went to the University of Madrid, located out in the suburbs at some distance. We attended classes with the other students, but were provided tutoring labs with special teachers to assist us. We all took two classes. Mine were 18th Century Spanish Literature and Spanish Painting taught through the works of the Prado Museum. My Spanish Literature class was impossible. The professor was a little bald man who rushed into the lecture hall and spewed forth speech that was incomprehensible to me. I remember nothing about what we read.

Spanish Painting was completely different. It opened a whole new world to me. I never studied art history, had no background in art and learned a great deal from professor Azcarate. He was a brilliant academic with one withered arm who brought the paintings and the painters to life. Since it was Spanish Painting taught through the works of the Prado, we would go there on our own to studywhat we covered in class. The class covered paintings from ancient triptychs to the work of Francisco Goya. Modern art was not covered. But all the major painters such as El Greco, Velasquez, Murillo, Ribera and more were studied. I loved being in the Prado. Painting students were always on the second floor making copies of the great works of Velasquez such as Las Meninas. There was a lovely painting of Jacob sleeping. And on sunny days you could see angels ascending and descending a ladder in the sky above the sleeping Jacob. Goya became my favorite painter due to the complexity of his work and his very dark vision of human nature. His famous black paintings were located in the basement.

I came back home after the morning classes and we had the main meal at 3 in the afternoon. Afterwards we retired to our rooms for siesta. Then about 5 you might return to the University for more classes and come back at 7. At 10 we had a light meal, perhaps a vegetable omelet. I must say the food was excellent at my house. The Senora prepared delicious meals on a tiny stove with a few burners and an even tinier oven. I acquired a taste for olive oil and garlic. One of my favorite dishes was garlic soup. She shopped for food daily and we had fresh meats, fish and vegetables. When I traveled, she would prepare another favorite of mine, a tortilla Espanola which was a potato omelet. She sandwiched this omelet in a really good crusty roll. It is regrettable to say, but living in a fascist police state, had its advantages. A woman alone was safe walking anywhere even at night. There was a broad system of serenos, kind of night watchmen who manned most of the buildings. And of course if you did anything wrong, the Guardia would drag you off. My friend, Bonnie participated in a student demonstration at the University. They were all hosed down with fire hoses, she was briefly taken into custody and her passport taken from her. She had to appear at the Embassy to retrieve it. You learned quickly that freedom of speech or expression did not exist here.

I enjoyed having guitar lessons with my teacher, Miguel. An antique caged elevator delivered me up to his flat where he lived with his mother. The flat, always cool and dark, had the strong scent of lemon oil. Miguel was blind and had been since he was a teenager. He was kind and taught me to play simple Spanish tunes. The custom of walking arm and arm with your friends was charming to me. The Spanish are well known for strolling up and down the street, to see and be seen. Walking with your friend, it was nice to enjoy this custom and a real help in negotiating those cobblestone streets in the high heels we wore then.

I traveled throughout Spain during the year. I have vivid memories of a trip I made to the south of Spain, called Andalusia. I traveled with a group of students during Easter break which was called Semana Santa or Holy Week. Traveling through the countryside late at night on our bus excursion, we passed a hilltop town that was completely black. I thought at first it was a ruin, but someone explained it was simply a town without electricity. We were able to visit the famous Alhambra in Granada. Due to the long Moorish occupation of Spain all the architecture and gardens were in the Moorish style. I recall the fragrance of orange blossoms in the night air of Sevilla. We were riding in an open horse drawn carriage throughout the city and across the Guadalquivir River to the gypsy district. There at a nightclub, we saw Flamenco dancers and clapped our hands and shouted, “Ale! Ale! to the pulsing rhythms. One of our group, a very quiet guy, was moved to jump up on our table, stomp his heels and dance.

The most important event of Semana Santa was the parade of the Penitentes or penitents, held at night in Sevilla. The streets were all lit with candles and torches. It was very primeval and spooky. The Penitentes were garbed in white robes with pointed hoods and only eye holes cut out. They looked exactly like Ku Klux Klansmen. The hooded Penitentes marched along carrying large candles. Also parading slowly, were huge altars supporting statues of the Virgen Mary and other saints from the cathedral and other churches of the city. The altars were enormous and supporting them from beneath drapes of cloth were all the men it took to carry each one. You could feel and hear the great effort exerted by all these men as they heaved and swayed along the parade. The wealthy people of the city loaned their precious jewelry to be draped over the statues. The most famous of the Virgens is called La Macarena. The crowds marveled and gasped in awe as the altars passed. Some penitents took it upon themselves to crawl on their knees some distance, a few even did it in chains. All of this was extraordinary to me. I knew little about Catholicism. The few Catholics I knew abstained from eating meat on Fridays and gave up candy for Lent. But this was Spain, home of the Inquisition, where nonbelievers or heretics were routinely killed. An earlier version of this kind of parade involved the penitentes being beaten as they walked down the street.


It was an exciting time for me. I could scarcely imagine greater adventure and returned to Madrid full of memories and large wax stains on my coat. Little did I know there were exciting events happening back at my home campus, Cal Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement had begun.

Janet Kessler - 1996

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