I was born on an August evening in Spain, when my father was stationed at the naval base in Rota, near Cádiz. That September, my parents drove to Seville to register my birth at the American Consulate General. I imagine them driving along in their VW Beetle with the top down, crossing the shimmering Guadalquivir River and, after taking care of business at the consulate, enjoying a leisurely lunch of tapas and sherry, then stopping in at the PX, where my mother loved to shop. On their way home, the setting sun casting its golden rays over the ancient city, they passed young couples in love, grandparents and small children, everyone out for the evening paseo stroll. Those were happy years for my parents, an idyll before we moved to the States and their marriage began to fall apart.
Recently I returned to Spain. It was a holiday but also a pilgrimage, a search for something not located in geographical space. I was tracking my parents' dream of Spain, of each other; my own dream of Spain as a place where we'd all been together.
It was August and my husband, children, and I arrived in Seville on my birthday. Our hotel was in the Barrio de Santa Cruz, the old Jewish quarter, a labyrinth of dark, narrow streets opening into tiny plazas where water splashed in fountains and jasmine perfumed the air. We saw flamenco, ate salmorejo cold tomato soup, admired the stained glass and golden nave at the cathedral, an edifice intended to be of such breathtaking beauty that all who laid eyes on it would think the builders mad.
From Seville we drove to Arcos de la Frontera, a white town perched on a cliff over the Guadalete Plain. I'd heard about Arcos from my parents: It was so high up that the swallows flew past at eye level; there were so many churches that bells were always ringing.
After Arcos came Ronda, famous for bullfighting and the fantastic gorge dividing the town in two. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who stayed for a few months from 1912-13, said: "I have sought everywhere the city of my dreams, and I have finally found it in Ronda. The spectacle of this city ... separated by the narrow, deep gorge of the river, corresponds very well to the image of that city revealed in dreams." In Joyce's Ulysses, Molly Bloom thinks about "Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets..." The town was so gorgeously romantic, Hemingway said, that it was "where you should go ... on a honeymoon or if you ever bolt with anyone."
We continued to Granada, city of Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), the poet and playwright killed by Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. As we explored the fairy tale palaces and gardens of the Alhambra, wandered the medieval labyrinth of the Albayzín quarter, I felt Lorca's spirit, the soul of his Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads), a collection that Lorca described as a "carved altar piece" of Andalusia, with its "gypsies, horses, archangels, planets ... Jewish and Roman breezes, rivers, crimes ... A book that hardly expresses visible Andalusia at all, but where the hidden Andalusia trembles."
We took the train up to Madrid, where we ate ourselves silly on tapas, saw Picasso's stunning Guernica at the Reina Sofia Museum, and, one torturously hot afternoon, visited the Palacio Real, official residence of the Spanish Royal Family. The palace has over 3000 rooms, filled with mirrors and Venetian crystal chandeliers, frescoes and tapestries, paintings by Velázquez and Goya, armor worn by the kings of Spain. As we left a room with exquisite hand-painted tiles on the walls, my daughter swooned and fell into my arms, her wide-brimmed straw hat tumbling to the ground. It was the heat. Or maybe, I thought as we retreated to the air-conditioned cafeteria, it was the Stendhal syndrome, named for 19th-century French writer Stendhal, who, encountering the staggering beauty of the frescoes in Florence's Church of Santa Croce, experienced disorientation, faintness and palpitations of the heart.
In a plaza not far from our hotel stood a statue of 17th-century poet and playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca. On the base was a scene from his famous play: La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream). Once, years after my parents divorced, I heard my father quote from this play as he drifted off to sleep: "Toda la vida es sueño," he murmured, "y los sueños, sueños son." All of life is a dream, and dreams are only dreams. In the play, a prince imprisoned in a tower reflects:
. . . I dreamed of myself
in a happier time.
What is life? A madness.
What is life? An illusion,
a shadow, a lie,
and the greatest good is small:
for all of life is a dream,
and dreams are only dreams.
When my father died in October, I made a discovery that shed more light on what Spain may have meant to my parents. In one of my father's poetry books, I found "Volverán las oscuras golondrinas" ("The Black Swallows Will Return") by the great Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870), marked with a post-it and copied out again and again on scraps of paper. According to the biographical note, Bécquer "wrote a single volume of poems on a single theme, the failure of a love affair..." The poem begins like this:
The black swallows will return
to hang their nests on your balcony,
and once more, as they sport,
to knock with their wings against its window-panes;
but those that stopped their flight to observe
your beauty and my good fortune,
those who learnt our names . . .
they . . . will not return!
And these are the last two stanzas:
Burning words of love
will sound once more in your ears;
perhaps your heart will wake
from its deep sleep;
but silent, absorbed and on their knees,
as men worship God before his altar,
as I have loved you . . . do not be deceived:
you will not be loved like that!
(from The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse)
"Gypsy Cante," an excerpt about our time in Spain from my travel memoir-in-progress, is out in New World Writing.