Strip-searched in a Spanish cathedral!

Although I have other things to write about, I thought I’d begin by recounting an adventure from my youth (well, young adulthood). As readers may remember, many of my youthful peccadillos—a word that always reminds me of a hybrid between an armadillo and a peccary—involved me in various states of undress, including the famous and often mis-cited story of me in Dick Lewontin’s office.

Here’s another in the same genre. Now I may not have been the only American to have been strip-searched in Barcelona’s famous cathedral, the great Sagrada Família of Antoni Gaudi, but I don’t know of another. Construction on the cathedral, still unfinished though it was begun in 1882, came to a temporary halt when Gaudi died in 1926 after being hit by a streetcar. Construction slowly resumed according to Gaudi’s incomplete plans, and is now scheduled for completion in this decade.

It is a sui generis masterpiece, and a must-see if you’re in Barcelona. (Have a look at a few images here.) It would take too long to describe Gaudi’s style, but I find it immensely alluring. The cathedral is like a giant organism, festooned with organic shapes, weird imaginary gargoyle-animals, and real animals sculpted in stone, like snails, climbing the towers.

Have a gander, and note the walkways between each pair of spires; I’ve circled one in red. These play a crucial role in my tale.


This all happened in 1995, when I was invited to give a lecture on evolutionary genetics at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, hosted by Professors Alfredo Ruiz and Antonio Barbadilla. I had a few days before the talk, and checked myself into a hotel on the Ramblas, the Happening Street in Barcelona. Although it wasn’t my first visit, I treated myself to some sightseeing, which included visits to tapas bars and, of course, the various buildings and parks of Gaudi, including the Sagrada Família. I went to the cathedral by myself, and walked up and down all four spires. Each pair of spires, connected with one catwalk, has a separated gated entrance in the bottom courtyard (the nave, which was not covered then).

When I was walked between the left pair of towers on the narrow catwalk, a pair of women British tourists was walking in the other direction, and it was a tight squeeze to go past them. After I went by, I heard a bit of a commotion behind me, with the women exclaiming something, but I couldn’t make it out.

After I’d had my fill of both spires, I went down to ground level to access the other pair of spires, climbed them, and then came down. When I wanted to leave, the exit gate was blocked. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself, and decided that there was only one open door to all the spires. But when I went back to the one I’d entered, it too was locked. I was trapped.

I stood by the door, a jail-like gate, and called for help. Eventually a uniformed officer came in and, though I spoke almost no Spanish, I said something like “exit, please” (“Salida, por favor”). The guard said, “Un momento,” and went away.

I was puzzled and starting to get a bit anxious.  After about ten minutes, an entire cadre of police (the Guardia Civil, as I recall) showed up, opened the gate, entered, and then began yelling at me in Spanish. I could not understand them, but it was clear that they were very angry at me.  I had no idea what they wanted, but they begin pointing to my daypack, took it, and began going through it minutely, examining every object. In my fractured Spanish, I tried to explain who I was: “Yo soy professor”, and I showed them a paper on which was written the names of my hosts. This was to no avail; they yelled at me and were extremely nasty.

After they went through my daypack, shouting and manhandling me all the while, they gestured at my clothes. It was clear that I was to remove them all.  What choice did I have? And so I stripped naked on the stairs at the bottom of the cathedral’s spire, surrounded by police. They went through every bit of my clothes, from shirt to shoes, turning out my pockets.

What they were looking for mystified me. All I knew was that I seemed to be in serious trouble. There I stood, a nude American in Gaudi’s masterpiece, and my fate was in the hands of the notoriously hard-ass Guardia Civil.

After a while, an English-speaking Spanish official showed up, and explained to me that one of the English women whom I’d squeezed by had discovered, shortly thereafter, that her wallet and passport had been stolen. They immediately went to the authorities in the Cathedral and reported that I had somehow purloined the items when I squeezed by them.  That accounted for the commotion I heard shortly after I passed the pair.

Of course I hadn’t stolen anything; Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets, and the woman had clearly had her passport and wallet lifted before she came to the cathedral, but just discovered it after I passed them.  Finally, the cops let me put my clothes back on, but by that time I was shaking with fear at the rough treatment I’d received.

When I was finally released to leave the cathedral, both English women were standing in the courtyard (the future nave). As I passed them, one of them said to me, “We know you did it. We just don’t know where you put the stuff.”  How they knew this so certainly baffles me. (Perhaps they thought I’d sequestered the goods somewhere in the spire.)

I was about the most shaken I’d ever been, matching the time when the Moroccan police stopped a car in which I was hitchhiking, suspecting us of committing a hit-and-run murder—but that’s another tale. I was so shaken that all I could do was to find a place to sit down and pull myself together. And that place was the real Gothic Cathredral in Barcelona, a masterpiece from an earlier time. I went inside where it was quiet, and I sat in a pew and tried to recover for an hour or so, but I was still deeply shaken. That was the only time in my life I’ve gone into a house of worship to seek respite.

I was to meet my old friend Andrew Berry that afternoon, who was in Barcelona giving a course of lectures at the Autonoma, and he recounts meeting me after my horrible encounter:

On the fateful day in question, I was teaching at the Autonoma and took the train into town at the end of the day to meet you, as pre-arranged, in the Plaça de Catalunya at the top of the Ramblas.  I found you in the specified location in a genuine state of shock.  Even though some hours had elapsed since your traumatic experience, you were still actively shaking.  They say that people *shake* when terrorized, but I’d never actually seen it before.  You were quivering.

I was to lecture at the Autonoma the next day, and the crowd was pretty big. Antonio introduced me in Spanish, and as part of his introduction he told the audience how I’d been treated in the Sagrada Família; they audibly gasped at the way a visiting professor had been treated (being a professor is a bigger deal in Europe than in the U.S.). Several people told me I should make a formal complaint and write letters to the newspaper about what had happened, but I wanted to put the episode behind me. But even now when I think about that day, I get the willies.

The denouement of my visit was pleasant. My lecture went off well, and then, with true Spanish hospitality, Andrew and I were taken out for an evening of drinking, dining, and dancing. We first went to a restaurant famous for its lamb dishes (I can’t recall the name); our reservations were for 11 p.m.! (To an American, the Spanish dine at ungodly hours.) The dinner was terrific, and then we all repaired to a disco on top of a mountain and danced until dawn. (I was a bit friskier in those days!). Here are some photos from that evening that Andrew took with real film:

Dinner with some of the biology department. If you’re an evolutionary biologist, you may have heard of some of these folks (labels from Andrew):

It was only 25 years ago, but I looked so much younger then, with a bushy head of black hair.  Here I am drinking wine from the communal vessel called the porron, a Catalan device that helps promote sociality while preserving sanitary drinking. You have to be good enough to pour the wine into your mouth without slipping up:


Dancing till dawn in a disco. I’ve only done that once since: at my 25th college reunion.

71 thoughts on “Strip-searched in a Spanish cathedral!

  1. I gather that the English tourists never came round to think you innocent? That would have been great, but you can’t win them all. It is terrible to be accused of a crime or bad deed that you did not commit. You have no real defense, in most cases. Terrible.
    I hope your great evening made up for that.

      1. Your treatment was inhumane. Where did the English Woman think you were hiding the stuff? Under your tongue? A real pity.

  2. From my visits to Spain long ago I can confirm the Guardia Civil are not to be messed with. I’m glad you spelled it for me, I know how to pronounce it but not to spell it. They were Franco’s personal police, I was told, and they could do whatever they want. They wore those funny little patent leather hats and a cape. Often they also carried little machine guns of some kind. I was in Spain a couple of time in the very early 70s when I was in the service. We were told to always stay away from these guys.

    1. “Guardia Civil”: I had mistakenly thought they existed just as Franco’s thugs. Still, that would have been for 35 years. But it turns out the founding was way back in the early 1800s. And they still exist (and now are popular with the public). I was there in summers of ’64 and ’65, middle of Franco’s hegemony. The three cornered hats!

      “..danced till dawn..”: Hopefully some flamenco ‘attemptos’ (no idea whether that’s a Spanish word). But maybe the wrong end of Spain for that (or should I have said ‘Catalonia not Andalucia’, the former having large independence sentiment?).

      My visits had a lot more Granada and Seville, and should have had more Barcelona. Seemed like too many tourists there. I once gave a talk at UFlorida where my host was a Catalonian US immigrant, just after the Canadian Coast Guard had arrested a Spanish fishing boat off Newfoundland, causing quite a big international incident (about 1990?). We didn’t really know each other personally before then. He told me he had been worried in case I, as a Canuck, carried around some anti-Spain sentiment. He had completely unnecessarily prepared a verbal defence that he was really Catalonian, not really Spanish.

      1. Did not know their history went back so far. In the military as you are traveling around, they always give you some information on the area and it may not always be correct. However, at the time you just believe it on go on. I was able to do a couple of bull fights, go to a formula one race and a few other things. Most interesting about 5 of us rented or hired a cab driver to drive us up into the mountains to do some skiing. Everything was so cheap in those days.

        1. I remember 3-course dinners for $1. In ‘66, when I was studying in Florence with a Stanford program, all 88 of us went on a field trip to Spain by bus. (I really feel sorry for our chaperones in retrospect). Dinner wasn’t until 10 PM and despite having tapas earlier, we were all starving and filled up on bread before the next 5 or 6 courses. Afterwards we had to walk around for about an hour to digest it all before bed. Loved Madrid and Barcelona and a lot of the other hill cities. The men were pests to American girls/women, especially us blondes, and assumed we were all easy prey. Some of our male classmates came to our rescue in a water fight from rowboats on the lake in the Prado Park. In ‘69, when travelling with a female friend, it was brutal, but I did happen to meet and fall in love with a fellow Californian in the Goya watercolors room of the Prado.

          1. I wonder if anyone experienced the bars. I remember going into these places, not many people was your first warning. But they hire these nice looking girls, always blond who work there. Soon as you sit down for a beer or drink here they come. The girls sit down and demand a drink. If you don’t buy they throw you out. If you do buy you are just losing your money. On a more favorable time, we hired this guy to drive us from Zaragosa up to the mountains to ski and came back the same day. Cost us 5 dollars a piece plus a few cigarettes.

          2. “..The men were pests to American girls/women..”

            And from elsewhere too of course. My then British wife has related to me an instance in Paris, just a few months before we first met in Manchester, where being approached from behind by one of the pests, she quickly sent him packing:
            Women used some real stilleto-like heels sometimes in those days, and a full-weight crunch downwards onto the top of his foot was apparently more than sufficient. The loud squeal of pain probably sent a few others off in a different direction as well.

        2. “bullfight”

          First year there, I met someone soon after the train from Paris to Madrid, we had a few beers (‘cerveza’, I think, and the ‘z’ pronounced soft ‘th’ if and only if you were an uppity Madrid-ian, or Castillian I guess) and met a few other times, at the Prado museum I think. Then his family invited me to the Sunday bullfights. In Madrid that was pretty formal, not much blood, for the humans anyway.

          But later down in Torremolinos, for some reason I went over to the Malaga bullfight (pretty stupid and insensitive as a 22-year old!) and it soon made me sick. It was actually rather difficult to get out of the arena only maybe ⅓ of the way through the six gory events (3 bullfighters).

          Hopefully the bulls are not nearly as badly treated these days.

          One of the bullfighters had been gored, but survived.

          1. Yes, the bullfights in Spain are not something you forget. Three fighters and they each do 2 fights. I still have some photos but not many would want to see them.

          2. Now that I remember, that “sick” was also partly the start of what is now (politely in some sense, but not another) called ‘Montezuma’s revenge’. I certainly knew enough that then in Spain drinking the tapwater was a very bad idea. But I didn’t have enough sense to brush my teeth in vodka.

            1. I don’t remember getting Montezuma’s revenge my whole six months toodling around Europe and North Africa. Was careful with the water in Africa, but not particularly in Spain. I’ve never been much of a drinker of alcohol so must have just drunk the local water sans repercussions. Russia was a different story. There were these awful water dispensers with a metal cup and chain and everyone was to drink from the same cup. No way, José. The bottled fizzy water was salty and the orangeade disgusting. Drank a lot of tea, especially on the elegant Russian trains. I became a bit of a heroine to my group when I waa able to score a couple of cases of Coke from the U.S. Embassy PX.

              1. You were about a half-decade after me, and I’m sure the tapwater had at least somewhat improved by then. The standard of living was certainly getting better quickly in much of Europe. You could even get pizza in Britain by then.

                I can remember a glass of coke costing far more than a glass of wine in France and elsewhere, so no wonder you were a heroine.

                Maybe it was down in Andalusia where the main water problem was for those with unadapted guts. But lots of the continent of Europe in the south was said to be problematic. I think you could easily get (flat, no fizz) bottled mineral water then, and that’s what I used, though not for tooth brushing.

                The beer wasn’t that good in Spain (great in Britain, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia of course), though I guzzled plenty of beer everywhere, between ages of 16 and about 24 when I became a dad. I should try that tonight brushing my teeth. They say alcohol can be a good fallback when all the ‘germkillers’ disappear from shelves in our present difficult situation.

              2. I was unaware until an MD friend told me, the waterborne illness of which you speak is essentially caused by disintegrating (or nonexistent) sewage systems. Fecal contamination from sewer to water supply occurring under ground. The natives are immune simply because they grow up with it and their gut flora/fauna is adjusted. Tourists arrive with naive guts and suffer dreadfully. I hope that helps, although I doubt it will.

              3. I lived a lot of different places growing up so probably have a tougher tummy than the average bear.

          3. Fortunately there are fewer countries with bullfighting. “Mexico is one of the few remaining countries where bullfighting is still legal (others include Spain, France, Portugal, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador). The largest bullfighting ring in the world, fitting 60,000 spectators, resides in Mexico City”.

              1. Amusing, but from someone who thinks bull fighting is cruel, it’s still kind of nasty. Are the children being primed?

    1. That was even before my time in Spain. I was around Zaragoza for a month and later a couple of weeks in Madrid.

    2. You steered clear, Merilee, but probably not your passport, unless you stayed privately.

      The hotel employees would collect my passport and not return it till almost the end of my stay there. That passport always went through the Guardia Civil offices I’m sure. They had to make sure the person was not a ‘Gary Cooper/Ingrid Bergman movie doppelganger’–from that film, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” novel (I almost wrote “The Sun Also Rises” ) of Hemingway. I loved that film, but then I had been in love with Ingrid Bergman from the age of about 10.

      1. You’re so right, Peter, about the passports. I had forgotten that! My worst passport scare was at the Russian-Hungarian border in July ‘66, in a town named something like Chop. A group of American students were travelling by train With a tour organized by Italians. (You couldn’t go into the Soviet Union un-organized in those days.) they stopped us at the border at 3 AM and collected all our passports. All were returned fairly promptly except for mine and my classmate Roger’s. We had to wait several hours to get ours back – no explanations given. The officious official stood up on a platform (picture John Cleese in the role) and slowly paged through our passports (mine was held upside down!) before handing them back. No idea why we were singled out. Roger was a bit long-haired with a beard, but I looked pretty “regular”. I’ve always wondered if they knew that my dad had worked with OSS in Russia during WWII.

        1. Just picturing Cleese as a clearly very ‘clever’ Eastern European, circa 1980, border guard, not only clever enough to read English, but even do it upside-down.

          Pretty close to what we’d see might be Basil Faulty, his uncontrollable Nazi salutes etc., couldn’t keep his prejudicial ignorances away, with the friendly German tourists in 1980 Faulty Towers Hotel’s restaurant, but now wearing the uniform and military oversized cap.

        2. “All were returned fairly promptly except for mine and my classmate Roger’s.”

          Maybe you two looked like the best bribe prospects.

            1. Just to be clear in case of misinterpretation:

              I of course meant ‘extractees’ not ‘extractors’; that is, you might have been suspected of having more money or more need to get back on the road, so the border guards would hope to extract a bribe FROM you two(but didn’t in the end).

  3. Wow, I’ve never even heard of that cathedral (though I’ve never been to Spain). It’s amazing, and especially so because it’s somehow so unique while still being beautiful and in harmony with its surroundings. These days, with the crap designed by people like Frank Gehry, the goal seems to be making a building either as discordant and disagreeable with its surroundings as possible (e.g. Gehry) or as complicated as possible (e.g. Zaha Hadid), with no consideration for anything else. When it comes to Hadid, at least, she’s done plenty of stunning work, but then I see this and all I can think is “you had a perfectly lovely building and then took a dump on it”:

    I really loathe most of modern architecture. It makes living in the US tough. We’ll never have anything even one trillionth as grand as the Palace of Westminster, or so many of the lovely older buildings all around Europe.

    Anyway, sorry to go off on a rant. Loved your story!

    1. If you ever get a chance, WA’s state capitol is worth a visit! Though not quite so old or so grand as anything you’d find in Europe, it is fantastic. It’s the second to the last of our domed capitols, and the fourth tallest masonry dome in the world. The amount of thought and intention that went into the design is staggering. It was part of the city beautiful architectural movement, and finished construction in 1927. You can imagine had they waited a few more years it never would have been built as such.

    2. “..loathe most of modern architecture”

      The Gaudi is gaudy, but not modern in the artsy-fartsy sense.

    3. I agree completely about the Havenhuis in Antwerp. I live a 10-minute walk away from it, and I can’t stand the sight of it.

  4. About Guardia Civil hats: in 1971 a nice Galician farmer explained me why they are absolutely flat at the rear: it allows the bearers to take a nap under a tree without removing this essential component of their uniform.

    1. From something on wiki:
      “The Guardia Civil was founded in 1844. Its original headgear was the famous Tricornio. Tricorner hats had been popular in the previous century. ”

      I’d mentioned “three cornered hat” above, but not so sure now that they were still exactly that hat in 1964-65 Guardia Civil. You’d see them strutting around with a machine gun slung over the shoulder. Sounds like a Drumpf thing. Maybe Mass Murderer donald should now be known as Generalissimo Drumpfranco.

      A Manuel de Falla/Diaghalev ballet has that title. I’ve heard it lots, but never seen it (I think); likely it relates to the hat’s historic popularity in the 1700s and 1600s there, nothing about the cops in Spain (no longer torture in the plain–‘the ryne in Spyne falls mynely in the plyne’, which sounds suspicious as a climatological ‘fact’ from Broadway).

  5. This story and the pics remove all doubt: Ben Stiller should be cast in the lead when Hollywood gets around to making the Jerry Coyne biopic.

    And as for where you would’ve stashed the purloined loot had you been the thief, that’s easy: pro pickpockets generally work in teams, with a “hand-off” partner precisely so that the perp who does the “lift” will be clean if nabbed by the heat.

    1. Pickpockets’ve been working in teams at least since the days when Fagin put together a crew including Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger.

      1. One of my favorite movie scenes depicting a pickpocket team. Though in this example, there is the one who lifts and the one who distracts.

        1. My brother and his gf had to waste a whole afternoon in Paris a few years ago when they were unwitting witnesses to a young gypsy girl pickpocketing incident on the subway. I think the girls got away but brother and gf were hauled down to the station as witnesses.

      1. Well bad on the Francoist fascisti fuzz in that case. They should’ve known no pickpocket worth his salt would ply his trade anywhere but a crowded public space.

  6. Im spaniard. Guardia civil was the pro-fascist Police in oposition to the left-republicans “guardias de asalto” during spanish civil war. Nowdays they keep that “fascista like” style, with religious influence “opus dei” style. I myself had similar facts. But the weird actitude sounds like a tipical opus agression: no word about religión but an “humiliating afair” to broke your nerves, to disturb your “atheistic pro-evolutionary work”

  7. “Strip-searched in a Spanish cathedral” recalls some of the hard-lines in Cracker’s “Euro-Trash Girl”:

  8. This story reminds me of something much much milder I endured in Teruel, Spain, when I visited in the mid-80s. I was doing nothing remotely suspicious, but was nevertheless called over by an authority figure (policeman rather than guardia civil as I recall), who demanded my passport, told me to get into the back of his police car, and questioned me harshly about what I was doing. When he was satisfied that I was in fact harmless he suddenly became all friendly. Frankly I was annoyed to have been treated so harshly for no reason, but of course played along with the friendliness so as not to have problems. Sounds like I got off lightly. At least I wasn’t roughed up or strip-searched!

  9. 25 years I a long time for us mortal humans. 25 years ago I was a young 25 year old woman and almost finished my second degree. Now I’m a bitter 50 year old woman.

  10. And THAT is why I read WEIT every morning at 4am.
    I love that bit: “professors are a bigger deal in Europe than here”.
    True. You should go to East Asia where learned folks are treated with REAL respect.

    D.A., J.D., NYC
    (fmr teacher in Japan)

  11. Jerry, Please keep the old travel stories coming: They are fascinating; and I love them!

    I’ve traveled extensively; but almost always in company with at least one other person. This seems to really help cut down on the hassles.

    Well, being 6′-5″ tall and male helps too, probably.

    But that wouldn’t have helped in this case: Could have made it worse! Yikes, what a story. Kind of amazing to me in post-Franco days too.

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