At the banquet with which Asterix in Switzerland comes to a close, Obelix is asked by Getafix what Helvetia - Switzerland - is like. Having drunk himself unconscious on the way, Obelix has never actually seen the Alps, though Asterix had to drag him up and down them while Obelix was sleeping. Which is why Obelix answers "flat".
The experience of many visitors to Spain is not dissimilar, since though they do not always drink so much, what they see of the country is basically the beach, a misleadingly flat section of what is, in large part, a country not only mountainous but a long way above sea level. This is mostly due to La Meseta Central, a plateau which turns much of the relief map brown.
Much of the country, therefore, is at altitudes rather higher than we normally associate with a beach. So, for instance, the A2, the main road from Barcelona to Madrid, passes through the Puerto de Alcolea del Pinar, which is 1206 metres above sea level, higher than anywhere in England or Wales. There is much more snow in Spain than people think, a point I am often keen to make when people's first reaction to learning that I live in Spain is to make assumptions about the weather.
For this reason, too, a country which may feel heavily populated, if you go to Madrid or the Mediterranean coast, seems the opposite if you live or travel outside the cities and the coastal strips. Spain, though twice the size of the United Kingdom, has only about three-quarters of the population, and its human geography is very unfamiliar to anybody who has lived mostly in the South-East of England. A Spanish province - to most intents and purposes the equivalent to a British county - is quite likely to have one middle-sized town, the provincial capital, and few, if any, centres of population other than that with as many as ten thousand inhabitants. As if the next-biggest town after Lincoln were Mablethorpe.
Teruel, for instance, or Ávila. As it happens, I have worked in the second cities of both provinces (Alcañiz and Arévalo respectively) but I doubt that even most Spaniards know what they are: and smaller than these, we are practically talking of villages. Spain is, to people who know it, a country of villages, of villages and the emptiness between them, and that is how I think of it, though every English-language news report I ever see from the country comes from Madrid or Barcelona. Or, if you are very lucky, Valencia.
It's always going to be like that - it is not as if Spanish reports from the UK tend to come from anywhere other than London - but it does mean that often, I feel that correspondents are talking of a different country from the one I know, and that the things with which they occupy themselves - the demonstrations, the government press conferences, the high politics and what's happening at La Bolsa - are things I do not see. They do not pass me by, so much as coming nowhere near.
Last week we worked in Cuenca. We left the Madrid road long before Alcolea, turning off at Calatayud, taking a side road to Molina de Aragón, which according to its English Wikipedia entry
holds the record (−28°C) for the lowest temperature measured by a meteorological station in Spain.Not quite the Costa del Sol. After that we stopped to eat by the banks of the Tajo, in the Parque Natural del Alto Tajo, and carried on from there to Cuenca.
Most of the territory we had driven though reminded me of the sort of landscape one often sees in a Western: red earth, curved sandstone cliffs, scrubland with very few trees, and fewer people still. A few kilometres short of Molina we passed a couple of cars, by the side of the road, apparently being searched by the police: I speculated whether they had foiled an attempt to supply drugs to the good people of Molina, where there is probably not a great deal to do and which is a very long way from anywhere. Everywhere, in rural Spain, is a long way from anywhere else.
Our sales in Cuenca were 40% down on the previous year. It is hard to sell books to parents who have no jobs and schools which have no budgets. The head of studies told us there was no money for anything: if a light bulb stops working, they have to take one from elsewhere. The English teachers they used to have, have left: along with all their counterparts in similar schools in Castilla-La Mancha, they arrived at work at the start of the 2011/2 school year to find their jobs had been abolished without warning. Some, including one in Cuenca, had only just arrived in Spain. This is how labour market reform makes an economy more efficient.
Now, says the head of studies, English teachers are to be contracted through an agency whose owners (he claims) include Florentino Pérez and the husband of Dolores de Cospedal. Whoever owns the agency, they take a cut as large as is paid to the teachers: it introduces a new and expensive layer of bureaucracy, leaving the teacher poorer while neither the school nor the taxpayer is any better off. Meanwhile neither the school, nor the teachers themselves, know whether the teachers' jobs will be there next year.
At present it is a loosening, for want of a better phrase, rather than a falling apart: but there is only so much loosening one can do before disintegration happens.
Cuenca is an extraordinary city to see. Much of it, including our school, is high up on a hill - some of it, like a lot of Spanish citizens, barely clinging on.
The school itself is by the Torre de Mangana and the view out of the library window, over the river Júcar and the city, must be among the most striking that can be obtained from any school library in the world. The metaphorical view, from that same library, is less clear and less pleasing.
I have - somewhere, my shelves are less well organised than a qualified librarian's should be - an old pamphlet written by Michael Moorcock.
In it, he says something to the effect that in London, it is possible to believe in anything you like, provided you stay in the right places.
Maybe this is also true in Spain, today, and if you are in Madrid, with its dozens of demonstrations every month, Spain looks like a country on the brink of an explosion. But where there are fewer people, they are fewer protests, and where there are hardly any, there are none.
In most of Spain we are not about to have a revolution. We are just moving bulbs from one socket to another and hoping that the lights do not go out.
[Meseta Central: Wikipedia]