Homage to Córdoba

Jason Christian

Late one night in April 2006, I heard an unexpected knock on my bedroom door. I lived at the time with a loose coalition of punks, anarchists, hippies, and nondenominational nonconformists in a squatted block of flats, across from rumbling tracks, in a working class suburb of Barcelona, Spain. I was twenty-eight, going on seventeen. Four years earlier, I suffered through a bad divorce, went a little nuts and quit my job, dropped out of college for the second time, traveled Europe, and sort of stuck around. Ours was one of many hundreds of squats in the okupa scene, and it was something of a social hub. We hosted punk gigs and dance parties and a never-ending stream of guests. A squat hotel, I liked to call it. Our corner of utopia. And for the most part, we liked it that way. 

The door pushed open, and there stood an Italian acquaintance, a young man of twenty or so, who I’ll call Piero for reasons that will soon become clear. Like so many idealistic wanderers from hither and yon, Piero claimed our spare mattress from time to time. He’d been back in Milan for several months, earning money to buy a van, which he planned to convert into a home and meander around the country, and he’d invited me along for any stretch that I liked. So, despite the hour, and the fact that I lay in bed with a book, this wasn’t an unwelcome surprise. 

Piero apologized anyway, and fell to stammering, until he divulged why he’d come at this hour, unannounced. One could make thousands of euros, he said, maybe tens of thousands, by stealing opium from poppy fields that, as it happened, were planted all over Andalucía, the province most south. Huge operations, he said, owned by multinational pharmaceutical corporations, like Bayer. I only vaguely understood the perils associated with pharmaceutical drugs. The industry’s arguably worst creation, the global opioid crisis, was still years away. I had, however, cultivated a naive interest in opium. I’d read Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire. Perhaps I took bohemian lore too much to heart. I’d been dabbling, smoking the stuff, eating it, dissolving it in tea. In that decadent scene, it was simply around. 

All you have to do, Piero said, was slice the pods, and scrape away the seeping ooze, and that was it: raw opium; no processing involved. I was intrigued, more than intrigued, but I still didn’t know why he stood in my bedroom at 1:00 a.m. He went on to say that he and his friend, a thirty-something militant, who on occasion also crashed at our place, planned to drive down to Córdoba to get in on the scheme. I knew this friend, who I’ll call Matteo here. I’d heard him boast that he was wanted by the cops for some political action gone wrong. This friend, this fugitive, made me nervous. But I admired his grit. I secretly wished to be more like him: tough, fearless, devoted to toppling the state despite those impossible odds. I wasn’t much more than a dabbler in activism, either. A protest here, volunteering there. In those years, apart from clinging fiercely to my lifestyle, I had trouble with commitment of any kind. 

Piero asked what my next week or two looked like, if I could drive a stick, and if I had a driver’s license. My license was only valid in the United States, but, sure, I could drive a stick, and he knew as well as I that I was jobless, idle, free as one could be. He finally came out with it and asked if I would join them. I imagined, in that moment, all of that loot, the spectacular memories, and before I chickened out I told him yes, absolutely. Count me in. 

In truth, I was ecstatic. For some time I’d eagerly slid into any situation that spelled novelty or fun. I was of the mindset that one should try anything once. I call this chapter of my life “my second adolescence.” Stealing opium sounded like another wild time in a string of wild times that I’d encountered since overstaying my visa two years before. I wasn’t yet a writer, apart from notebook scribbles and letters to friends, but I had the impulse to navigate and understand other worlds. The more obscure and underground, the better. Two days later, Matteo arrived, and together we discussed a strategy and gathered supplies: 35 mm film canisters, for storing the product; wooden popsicle sticks and razor blades, to make extraction tools; baby wipes, to clean away the pungent smell; work clothes; water bottles; flashlights; pocket knives; and cell phones, of which we had two, Piero’s and mine. Piero showed us how to make the “cutters,” which he’d learned from a friend back home. We cut the popsicle sticks in half, crosswise, then sandwiched the blade and glued the sticks together, leaving a couple of millimeters of blade exposed. Cut too deep, Piero warned, and the opium would retreat inside; cut too shallow and not much would seep out. We made extra tools, just in case, and stowed everything in our bags. Piero said he wanted a year’s supply, and some extra to sell to put money toward his van. Matteo needed cash for his wife and two young kids, and to settle his legal debts. My motivation was murky, even to me. I could always use the money, but I wasn’t broke. Free opium was, without doubt, a nice draw. But more than those material concerns was my stubborn and yet ineffable desire to find new ways to set myself apart from the norm. I was a rebel with primarily that cause. 

We left the next day, not in Piero’s van, but in his mother’s car, which he’d neglected to inform her he had “borrowed” for an indefinite period of time. Of course, he never mentioned that he was taking the car abroad for a bit of theft and trafficking of an illicit drug. I suggested he give her a call, make up an excuse, but he insisted everything would be fine.

I was already having doubts on the drive. Piero smoked spliffs like cigarettes. Matteo grumbled nonstop about cops. They were certainly an odd pair. Piero looked elfin, feminine, dreadlocks tangled in the back. He wore loose tank tops, baggy pants, and sandals, his eyeglasses duct-taped together, crooked on his nose. Matteo, on the other hand, looked like a buzz-headed, five-o’clock-shadowed, Mediterranean Hugh Jackman, dressed in cargo pants and combat boots, top to bottom in black. At any given moment, one of the Italians was on and the other off, two syzygic figures like bicycle pedals working in tandem, round and round, connected but opposite, seemingly equals, though in this situation, clearly Matteo was in charge. 

At first, only Piero drove. He and Matteo sat up front and spoke Italian the entire time. Once in a while, one would turn around and offer a two-sentence summary in Spanish. Mundane things. They seemed to be catching up, sharing stories, arguing, laughing, blurting the words porco dio every other sentence. I finally asked what the phrase meant and Piero said, Pig god. Like it sounded. Somewhere en route, we stopped at a supermarket, and Piero, stoned out of his coconut, parked in a NO PARKING space. The car was towed while we shopped for our snacks and sandwich fixings, at which point I learned that I was the only one with money in the bank. We found an ATM. I spotted Piero seventy euros. And soon we were back on the road. Later that night, on the trip I assumed would take a day but now would definitely take two, we were driving through some town and Matteo yelled, STOP, startling me half to death. He muttered something to Piero, who then drove around the block and parked curbside in an unlit street. Before I could react, Matteo cinched up his hoodie and disappeared around the corner. Piero informed me there was a campaign against DHL, the German delivery service—I couldn’t get much more out of him than that. He sat in the driver’s seat, smoking on a spliff, and stared out the window. When Matteo returned, he ordered Piero to GO, GO, GO. He’d slashed the tires of a DHL truck, a penalty for screwing over their workers. Only sabotage could make this right, Matteo reasoned. And as we sped away, he took a deep drag from Piero’s spliff, and maniacally laughed into the night. 

None of us even knew how to identify a poppy field. We drove down one country road after another, and came up with nothing. In bars and on the streets, we asked every young person who didn’t look like a cop if they knew the whereabouts of any fields. It seemed like a preposterous idea, and most people responded with a confused no. But this was a known hustle: ravers and hippies from all over Europe did this every year, or so my accomplices had said. Eventually, in a low-lit, new-agey bar, the bartender told us she’d heard about a field ten kilometers east of town, on the highway, past the penitentiary. The word “penitentiary” caused me to flinch. She warned us the fields were guarded by the Guardia Civil. And the local police. And private security. She mentioned helicopter patrols. My partners didn’t seem to register the warnings at all. But I couldn’t focus on anything else. This sounded like a disaster in the making. Way too risky. But, somehow, incredibly, I kept these worries to myself, determined not to fall back into my earlier, overly cautious ways. This whole European experiment had been one long therapy session. Bravado was a learnable skill like any other, and I wore it like a cosplay suit. We were in this together, I told myself. I would pass this test. I wasn’t about to scuttle this project before it had even begun. 

The bartender drew a map on a cocktail napkin, and the three of us left right away. We searched and searched and finally found it. Set back from the highway about a kilometer, surrounded by endless rows of potatoes, artichokes, and God knows what else, a vast expanse of white flowers lazily swayed in the cool Andalusian breeze. The white was so white it didn’t belong in this hot and dusty region of the world. The white looked pure, like snow. 

Our routine began that night. At dusk, Matteo dropped us beside a clump of trees, at the edge of the highway, and drove back to town to while away the night. Meanwhile, Piero and I slunk across the enormous artichoke patch that separated the road from our goods. And goods there were: thousands of poppies, enshrouded in delicate petals. We worked by moonlight. The crisp, gentle wind, the stars overhead, the rustle of leaves, all reminded me of my childhood back in rural Oklahoma. As we worked, I retreated inside my head, worried, but also dreaming, hoping, reminiscing. I lamented that I’d grown apart from so many old friends, but I was also proud of how far I’d come. That I’d left my country in the first place was happenstance. And now here I was, an expert, in a sense, of another way of life. Perhaps I’d renounce my citizenship and live in Spain forever.

We moved down rows tall as cornstalks, making slits, releasing the unmistakable odor from the fleshy pods. Most had grown as large as golf balls, supposedly genetically modified for size and maximum yield. Only ours weren’t yielding. We convened and decided we were probably rushing it. Undoubtedly, it took time for the white sap to ooze out. We got back to it, slower than before, but there still wasn’t much coming out. Perhaps we were cutting too deep, or not deep enough. We’d have to adjust our cutters when we got back to town. We kept working. Hours passed. The pastoral reverie soured. Nevertheless, we worked until forty-five minutes before sunrise, at which time Piero rang Matteo, who held my Nokia, and told him we’d meet him at the clump of trees.

Matteo wasn’t happy when he heard about the yield. The driver position would rotate to me, and Matteo would show us how it was done. I wanted to argue, but I relented. After all, he was a decade my senior. 

The next night, back in Córdoba, after I’d dropped them off, I sat in a bar and read Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s first-hand account of fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The book was an inspiration to anarchists everywhere, not only in Spain. I’d wanted to read it for years, and so I was taking it slowly, a few pages at a time. I sipped beer, read my book, and wrote in my journal until the bar closed. Then I walked the streets in the lamplight to avoid getting rolled. Eventually, I attempted to sleep in the car in some out-of-the-way spot, windows shut to keep mosquitoes out. But I never slept well. The car’s interior was infernally hot. I tossed and turned until the phone alerted me that it was time to go. And just like the previous night, they only harvested half a canister each. We had expected much more: five, ten, fifteen full canisters each—per night. Their take was nothing. 

This pattern carried on for days. We lived on sandwiches and fruit and cleaned up in public washrooms. We sat in plazas and smoked spliffs. We barely slept. Sometimes I’d go into the field, and sometimes not, and always the same: one out of every thirty plants appeared ripe. The truth was hard to face, but we concluded that this was why we found the field in the first place: Poppies aren’t ready to harvest until the flowers fall away. We’d arrived too early. Perhaps three weeks too early. We were spinning our wheels. Wasting our time. But we were already there. Maybe—maybe—if we worked hard enough we might still somehow salvage the trip. 

One night, day seven or eight, the rotation brought me back into the field. Piero and I worked without speaking, and every now and then he took breaks to smoke. I smoked some, too, and as was my habit, I let my mind wander and surveyed my life, which, before this trip, had improved considerably in recent months. In January, I’d moved out of a filthy squat with no running water called Fucked For Life, where I lived in a closet, adjacent to the sitting room. Almost every night, my housemates, a revolving cast of drunken Australian, Swedish, and Irish punks, sat around and partied and blasted death metal. Good people, just stuck in a rugged phase. How should I describe the house? Dirty doesn’t begin to approximate the filth. Food encrusted dishes piled high in the sink. Black bags of dumpstered pastries and veggies sat around and grew mold. The bucket flush toilet never fully flushed. Dogs came and went and some weren’t housebroken. A rescued chicken perched atop the open back door and shat on the kitchen floor. We were scavengers, procurers of the discarded and overlooked. There was a built-in scarcity that shaped our daily lives. Tragedy of the commons. A dumpstered or stolen block of cheese lasted minutes, if that. 

But I no longer had to think about that crumbling squalor, because I now lived in a much nicer place we called El Crowbar, named after the tool my British friends called a squat key. It was my fourth squat in half as many years, and what a step up. We not only swept and mopped and stocked the fridge, but we enjoyed hot water and other luxuries like a washing machine, a TV, and a DVD player. It turned out food didn’t have to always rot before your eyes. You could eat it or throw it away. At El Crow, as my Peruvian housemate called it, we repurposed whatever we found. A door made a decent dinner table. Shipping pallets worked for bed risers. Electronics, kitchenware, clothes, shoes, anything and everything one could possibly need tossed away every day. Some generous people even stacked their usable trash beside bins. You had to be patient and wait for it to come. Otherwise, you might trade with a friend. Once, one of my housemates came home with dozens of heavy metal cassettes, a whole collection found in the street. Henceforth, when we sat around the dinner table chain-smoking, sipping boxed wine from aioli jars or sharing liters of Xibeca beer, we enjoyed a soundtrack of Dio or Manowar or Helloween. Those lazy days faded into long nights. 

I loved my home, but still I liked to get away, and summer was approaching fast. Perhaps I’d hitchhike to France or Germany and crash at some squats over there. Ours was a network that spanned the globe. But first we had to get out of this godforsaken purgatory. That required my partners to see the plan had run its course. It required me to speak my mind. But I still wasn’t ready to demand anything. Perhaps I was trying to change my noncommittal ways. I wondered about Matteo, too. What was he doing right now? Was he out breaking windows? Slashing tires? Or was he smoking hash alone in the car, dreaming of his own future with his children and wife? He’d told us about his plans to squat an entire village, somewhere in rural Catalonia. I learned from him that hundreds of villages were abandoned after the Second World War. The dictator Franco had dictated that peasants move away and fill the cities, part of his full-throttled industrialization project that led to the so-called Spanish Miracle, an economic boom. Matteo already knew some people squatting a couple of villages. The government had better things to do than hassle a few hippies living in the ruins of the last century. Besides, the laws were, in effect, on our side. Legally, the police couldn’t unilaterally evict. It had to happen in a courtroom, and sometimes it was too expensive or complicated for the owners to bother. So, for many of us the risk was worth it. Not that risk mattered to Matteo anyway. With him, one never knew what was next. At that very moment, he was just as likely in a bar shouting at old men about fútbol, cursing any fascist that supported Real Madrid.

Piero found me in the dark, jarring me from my trance. He’d cut the holy hell out of his hand. Blood was pouring out. The cut ran the length of his palm. With my knife, I cut off the sleeve of his extra shirt, and wrapped his hand tight. I told him to call Matteo, and to my surprise, he said no. We need to get you to the hospital, I said. You can’t work like this. 

But he insisted that he’d be okay. He was adamant. I tried to persuade him, and he wouldn’t budge. Worse, he wanted to keep working through the morning and into the next day. More light would bring a better yield. I reminded him of our one rule: no harvesting in daylight. The rules, he said, would have to bend.

What about the Guardia Civil? I said. The fucking helicopter patrols? 

We were talking about this, he said, and decided it’s nothing to worry about. Those are probably rumors anyway.

We? Of the three, I was the only one absent from that conversation. I considered taking off on foot right then, and hitchhiking home, but something kept me pegged to my spot. This was fucking crazy.

It will be all right, he said, and left it at that. 

It was so dark that I could barely see his silhouette. But I wanted to see his face, look him in the eyes and see if he was mocking me. I wanted to tell him to fuck off and leave him behind to show him how much he needed me, show him how ridiculous this whole plan had become. 

I tried again to remind him of our agreements, of the stakes, but to no avail. If I ever possessed any persuasive abilities, the reserve had run dry. Short of fighting him or running away, there was nothing I could do. So I gave up and went along with his plan. The phone remained in his pocket. He would ring my phone and summon our ride when he was good and goddamned ready. We got back to work.

It was true the yield was better in the light. As the sun began to rise, I could spot which pods were ripe, and maneuvered the blade with more control. The canisters were starting to fill, though still not as much as I’d hoped. The field was simply too saturated with unripe pods. Nothing could change that fact. At some point, I heard Piero say, Porco dio. A man in a straw hat approached from beyond the rows and yelled in Spanish that he was calling the police. 

Everything from there happened fast. We lurched from the fields, high stepping rows like the land was on fire. I’d never run so fast in my life. In mere minutes, we made it to our clump of trees. My lungs burned. I was panting like a dog. A minute, two minutes passed. Piero caught his breath, called Matteo, and explained the situation. I dug a shallow grave, buried the canisters, and marked it with a stick. I watched the field, half expecting a gang of farmers with pitchforks and guns. But nobody was there. I scanned the highway, which was empty as well. I ripped out baby wipes and washed away the residue from my hands, arms, and face. Did I still reek of opium? Did the farmer get a description? Surely we were the only two on foot by these fields, several miles from town—

I was frantic, and Piero was calm. He got off the phone, and wiped himself down. He said Matteo thought we should meet at the gas station halfway to Córdoba, five kilometers away. The plan was insane. But what choice did we have? We changed our shirts, hid the packs, and ran across the highway to the far service road. And what a shabby sight: me in all black, a scruffy punk aesthetic, and Piero in a one-sleeved shirt, a makeshift bandage around his hand, soaked through with blood. 

Our first task was to get to the gas station alive. I was desperate to invent a better alibi, but I was alone in this quest. Piero had nothing left to say. We walked hard and fast, one kilometer, and then another. When we reached the dreaded penitentiary, I imagined snipers itching for a chance to shoot. I chose to look away as we scurried past the razor-wire fences. Why the hell hadn’t a cop picked us up? Or picked us off? 

The more we walked, the more nervous I got. I sputtered out possible reasons for why an American and Italian were out here, in the middle of nowhere in Andalucía, on foot. Maybe, I said, we went south from Barcelona by bus, but at some point got robbed and lost our money, and so we took off hitchhiking—south not north, for some reason—still on our trajectory to Córdoba, a beautiful place in the spring, we’ve heard, and here we are, on some random road, because some driver got lost and dropped us off. Yeah, that was it. And we ended up dumpster diving for food in some village, because, again, no money. And that’s why you, Piero, cut your damn hand. 

They’ll wonder why we didn’t call our parents, I said, and ask them to wire us some cash. We’ll say our parents are broke, I said, or maybe out of touch, out of town. I was spitballing alone. Nothing I came up with sounded plausible to my paranoid ears. Piero stared forward and kept walking in his stonery silence. There was nothing more to say, because I was out of ideas. I swallowed my frustration and matched his stride.

Over sprawling hills, kilometers disappeared beneath our feet. We were well on our way to safety, and still no cops. We might have enjoyed the symmetry of the vegetable rows, indulged in the sight of birds swirling overhead, had we made it to the next hillcrest and not seen a roadblock in the distance. A police roadblock. I counted what I saw: seven cops on motorcycles, two vans, and a jeep, all spread across the next bridge. The cops seemed to be questioning every car that passed. Some of them stood around, chatting with one another. I thought I saw some of them laughing. We stopped walking. How on earth did they assemble a roadblock that fast? Piero suggested we hide, and turned for the fields. But I grabbed his arm. If we saw them, they saw us. We had to keep walking and stick to the story. I said those words, but I wasn’t convinced of anything. I didn’t even know if he remembered the story. Fear pumped adrenaline through my body like a fire-hose. My rational mind was trying to claw back in.

I repeated to Piero the basics of the half-baked alibi. Remember, I said. We’re the victims of a crime. We only want to get to Córdoba. Jesus, let’s stick with that. I felt like perhaps I should imagine this moment as my untimely death. We were closing in, and that was all I could think: death. I should resign myself, I thought, embrace it as a guilty man on death row might. And if we should be so lucky and survive, then, surely, we’d see the world anew from now on.

Finally, we reached parallel with the roadblock, and the cops never said a word, never so much acknowledged our presence. I’ve entertained every possible theory as to why they didn’t snag us, from white privilege to the likelihood that the roadblock was for some other reason besides us. Otherwise, why let this easy prey go?

Matteo was sitting inside the parked car when we arrived. I blabbered about our luck, waving my hands like a crazy person. Piero remained calm, and Matteo was like a rock. No expression. He said the police had been there. They asked everyone where they were headed, but they had just left. He told them he was a tourist and they bought it. A simple question, a routine answer.

We entered the station, bought espressos, and huddled at a table. In hushed voices, we discussed the debacle that had just transpired. Matteo made the inevitable joke that the police wouldn’t have to take us far with the prison right there. We all laughed—mine a fake—and the subject quickly dropped. I was already imagining the trip home. I decided, feeling generous, that I would volunteer to drive the first leg. I was so relieved to be free. But what should be done with our pathetic yield? To hell with it, I thought. Why return to the scene of the crime?

We drove straight to the hospital, and after a long wait, Piero emerged with nine stitches in this palm. The dried blood on his shirt was about the same color as you know what.

We found a bar and got another fucking sandwich, and I shouldn’t have been surprised when Matteo decided we should go back to the field that very night. 

Are you fucking kidding me? I said. I didn’t have the Spanish vocabulary to convey my indignation and disbelief.

We have so little product, Matteo said.

But the cops, I pleaded.

We’ll only work at night, Piero cut in, as though offering a compromise, as though that wasn’t the agreement from the beginning.

But I relented, yet again. From now on, I would drive. My memory blurs the contours of my surrender. Perhaps psychological forces have engaged to protect me from emasculating humility. What it boiled down to: I was a pushover. I’d wanted these guys to like me. I wanted a crazy story. I gave up my autonomy out of cowardice and a need for these men not to confirm what I feared about myself, that I was a weak American all along.

I sat in a cafe and sipped a cortado while thousands of Andalusians took over the streets. This was day ten. I’d learned from the waiter the name of the fiesta enchanting the city: Cruces en Mayo, the first of several festivals in Córdoba leading into, and throughout, the month of May. The waiter said a parade with flowery floats would wend through the city any minute. Children sold crosses made of wood and tin. Men and women sold crosses made of flowers. I’d never seen so many crosses in all my life. People wore their finest costumes, colorful Flamenco dresses, embroidered black suits with pointy shoes. A contest was held across the plaza, crosses being judged according to what? Prettiest, biggest, brightest? A man with a microphone worked up the crowd. Even if I could have understood the loudspeaker garble, I wouldn’t have been able to focus. I was stressed and lonely. Feeling lost. I sipped my coffee and wrote a letter to a friend.

“Part of me wants to write a whole book to you,” I wrote. I proceeded to write everything I’ve told here. My script was hurried, sloppy, in black ink. The letter stretched to 31 pages, the longest I’d ever written. It was like a confession, a journal entry, and therapy at once. I complained that I was way in over my head. I had no idea how this disaster would end. I was exhausted. I needed him to know I was still alive, that I missed him, missed everyone I’d left behind. In case I ended up behind bars or dead, I wanted him to know how it happened. I was too paranoid to sign my name, so I closed the letter with a simple word: “me.”

I now saw this experiment as more than a series of miscalculations and errors. It was as though I was part of a cult with an open-door policy and I still chose to stay. I was a hostage of my own bad choice, and I couldn’t convey to my friend or to myself precisely why.

After I finished the letter, I walked the streets of the ancient city and marveled at the Moorish architecture, absorbed how different this city was from the coastal city up north, where I’d been living a cosmopolitan life for the past two years. All of the Spanish stereotypes that were rare in Barcelona were abundant in Córdoba: labyrinthine alleys too narrow for cars, gleaming white adobe, mosaics everywhere, Catholic churches, religious statues, street beggars, Flamenco on the wind, beautiful people with dark eyes and dark hair, men in white button-ups with thick, black moustaches, elegant arches at Medieval mosques.

It turns out this is an Italian thing. Only now, fourteen years later, writing and reading from the comfort of a rented shotgun house in New Orleans where I live with my wife, I find a couple of pieces online that give context to what I only ever knew first hand. In June 2004, two years before the events recounted here, the Guardian ran a piece titled, “Police Hunt the ‘Opium Vampires.’” Though brief, it is handy for a few pertinent facts: 4,000 hectares are set aside for poppy cultivation, and some “seven tonnes” of plants are harvested every year to produce “morphine and codeine” and more. The article begins rather generously if I think of our situation: “Police have uncovered a drug scam involving professional [professional?] thieves who target fields in southern Spain where farmers have been cultivating opium poppies under licence for the government.” It mentions “night-time raids to ‘bleed’ plants in the opium fields,” hence the “vampire” moniker, and goes on to discuss a “police operation” to thwart “gangs” near Seville, where “14 Italians were arrested and one man killed by a car as he tried to flee across a busy road.” I had no idea how big this scam had gotten, and I doubt my companions did either. Though who knows what they knew: they weren’t exactly conversationalists.

Reading this now is like a glimpse of an alternative universe I somehow escaped. If I could have shown this report to myself back in 2006, would that version of me backed out? Probably not. I know I would have loved the term “opium vampire,” and the phrase “night-time raids.” Details from the article would have dovetailed nicely with the fantasy I was spinning in my head.

As I research further, I find a 2016 article from the Spanish paper of record, El Pais, ominously titled, “Death Among Spain’s Poppy Fields.” The article discusses an Italian “addict” found dead in a field. “The corpse belonged to Pasquale,” the author writes, “a 32-year-old Italian who dodged the heavy police surveillance to enter the poppy fields with two friends in search of a high.” I’m suspicious of the author’s certainty that the man was an addict. Maybe he was, but maybe he was someone like me, chasing some foolhardy notion of freedom without much of a plan.

Spain, according to the article, is the second largest legal opium producer in the world, behind Australia. The country grows up to 13,000 hectares of product a year (up from the reported 4,000 in 2004). “And though the legal opium business is expanding due to rising global demand for painkillers,” the author writes, “it remains shrouded in secrecy.” Surely, one of the secrets was that if you timed it right and didn’t get caught or killed, you stood to make a killing from the theft and resale of the product on the street. But we three didn’t time it right, and sort of got caught. As opium vampires we’d utterly failed.

One day they were ready to head north. The decision was always theirs to make. All optimism had withered and died. Resources were scarce. But they convinced me to visit an ATM again. They wanted hash for the road, and we needed food and gas. I conceded, of course. There was no other way.

In the end, we retrieved about ten grams apiece, a pitiful sum. It was mid-May before Piero dropped me off, and on the way back to Italy, he would take Matteo to his wife and kids. For the next few weeks, I ingested my share, and floated through a numb recovery. But at least I was home. That slender building the shape of a cheese wedge had never felt so much like home. Oh, that lovely word, home, where I kept my bed and music, art supplies and books, which I hear has been flattened to make a parking lot.

In the final passage of my letter, I told my friend that I was homesick, not for Oklahoma, but for Barcelona. “It’s the huge community of friends that I miss,” I wrote. “And the sea.” Córdoba, like Oklahoma, was far from the sea.