Two years ago, at around this time of the year, we visited Spain. We spent our first full day in the country in Granada, the famous storied city in the southern province of Andalucía.
And Granada is famous because of the Alhambra, the complex of fortress, gardens, fountains, reflecting pools, and palaces built by the Moorish princes at the height of their power in Andalucía in the Middle Ages.
I have kaleidoscopic images of our visit that afternoon: the tall cypresses forming an allèe towards one of the palaces; the perfect cube and starry domed ceiling of the throne room; the courtyard of the lions, the marble snowy white and the gurgling water of the fountains musical;
wall after wall and ceiling after ceiling embellished with exquisitely intricate stucco or mosaic tiles or both, in delicate creamy shades or in vivid blues, reds, and golds; and, before leaving one of the palaces, a shadowed hallway with large windows overlooking the Albayzín, the historic quarter of the town, its whitewashed buildings clinging on the opposite hill, blasted by the afternoon sun.
When evening fell, we exited and walked along a quiet path bordered by the high wall of the fortress. It was a beautiful winter evening, and the sky was a dark sapphire. Street lamps were lit. We exited from that narrow path into another path and, after some more walking, into Plaza Nueva with its midweek crowds, traffic, benches, fountains, and, in front of it, an imposing courthouse.
We found a traditional tapas bar nearby and had braised oxtail, eggplant with tomatoes, an array of different kinds of jamón and chorizo, a carafe of a thick, inky local wine. We left the restaurant in high spirits, adrenalized by the good food, and returned to Plaza Nueva where we found a churrería from which we ordered the last churros they had for the night.
Writing it like this, it seems like a perfect day. It wasn’t, of course. In his book The Course of Love, Alain de Botton says that perfect happiness can only come in five-minute bursts. I’m sure there were moments during the day when one daughter had a cranky outburst, another one whined, my husband annoyed me with some absent-minded comment, and I responded with impatience and lack of grace. But even our imperfections seem fragmented, unimportant that day, included here only to present a more complete, more truthful account. Because if de Botton is correct, then that day in Granada was filled with those elusive five-minute bursts—they’re mostly the only ones I remember.
We were in Spain for two weeks and I have many images of beautiful sights and joyful moments, like photographs in my head that I shuffle when I want to remember them: another afternoon in Granada, walking up the Albayzín and stopping at one of the numerous teterías for mint tea and pastries, the divans and pillows, purple silk curtains, and shapely gold-tinged lamps transporting us to Morocco, the tip of Africa so near, a mere bus ride from where we were, yet still a world away; another evening, this time in Córdoba, outside the monumental Mezquita after we had visited it, strolling lazily around and looking at souvenirs in the shops, the peaceful evening punctuated by a distant old-fashioned siren of a police car, so mild and unthreatening, so different from the obnoxious sirens in New York, that we looked at each other in bemusement and wonder; an afternoon visiting the magnificent Seville Cathedral, my memory of the place now a mashup of that happy afternoon and the previous afternoons years ago when I lived in the area as a young adult full of trite, but nevertheless excruciating angst.
And the food in Spain! The callos, cochinillo, jamon serrano, jamon iberico, tortilla española, pimientos de padrón, calamares, and pulpo, all washed down with glasses of tempranillo or manzanilla.
These other memories are, however, snapshots of various days. It’s only that first day in Granada that I have a memory of almost everything we did—where we went and what we had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; the whole afternoon in the Alhambra; the walk back to town; the tapas bar; the last churros of the day. I even remember minor characters in our drama: a middle-aged white American tourist at the entrance to the Alhambra, her face stunned when she learned that all tickets for the day were sold out, that she should have reserved her tickets weeks before visiting; the young woman in a black coat, a resident of the city, upon whom I inflicted my first tentative attempts at speaking Spanish again, after many years of not speaking the language, when I asked for directions to Plaza Nueva; the tall young man standing by himself at the bar and reading a book in the midst of the cacophony of the tapas restaurant, the only other Asian besides us in the place.
Rebecca Solnit, in her book The Faraway Nearby, wondered about how we love places but also how places love us back. She says: “And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite. The bigness of the world is redemption.”
The world is vast and there are so many places to explore. But part of me also just wants to go back, again and again, to Spain.