What’s the best way to tell the story of a year in Spain dedicated to Catalan politics and wine? I’m still trying to figure out a good form, but for now, I’ve opted for monthly emails to friends. Read on for tales from Granada, Castilla La Mancha, and, since January, Catalonia. Emails are in reverse chronological order.
12 October 2018
Month 12: California
A year ago today, I didn’t know where I was going to sleep. It was Columbus Day, a national holiday in Spain, and I was in Granada, a beloved vacation spot for Spaniards and foreigners alike. The hostel where I was staying had no rooms available, nor did any other hostel or Airbnb I searched. My head was pounding from the stress. I wondered if I could stay awake all night, or sleep on the roof.
I had landed in Malaga two days before. I was about to begin my fellowship year in Spain, and I had no plan. I didn’t know how I wanted to spend the year. I didn’t know where I wanted to live. I chose a random city in the south of the country, the region where I’d said I would stay, and was determined to stick it out there for as long as I could, learning about Andalucían poetry or artwork or something, anything. Feeling pressured by my close encounter with homelessness — I found a last-minute hostel for the night of October 12 — I signed a six-month lease on a room. Granada became home.
A year later, I’m writing this email from my living room in California. It is sunny outside, and a breeze is drifting through the shutters. The eucalyptus trees are rustling, and a small black bird is chirping on a branch nearby. The October air is crisp but not cold. The sky is baby blue and dotted with big white clouds. These are things I associate so strongly with home, though I didn’t realize that until now. I didn’t realize I missed the light from this window. I missed the early sunrise and all the palm trees. I missed my parents. I missed my grandma.
I arrived home a few days ago and my body hasn’t yet adjusted to the nine-hour time difference. The sun goes down so early here compared to Spain, and this makes me drowsy. It’s strange speaking to cashiers in English. I had forgotten that toilets had handles for flushing (in Spain, they are buttons). I’m typing on a normal keyboard for the first time in a year. I have more than two pairs of shoes at my disposal.
I’ve been anticipating writing this email for a while now, because it’s impossible to capture everything I want to say, everything I feel. I’ve traveled so much recently — the whole year, really — so it’s nice to sit and gather my thoughts. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
Before I returned home, I spent ten days traveling around northern Spain and southern France with three of my closest friends. We met two and a half years ago interning at the Boston Globe, and we hadn’t all been in the same place until they visited. Being with them made the summer of 2016, which was, until Spain, the lightest and happiest I’d ever felt, return to me so profoundly I often found myself wondering how so much time had passed, when it felt like nothing at all. It all came back: long nights sitting on a friend’s balcony near Davis Square, talking until we had to go home to sleep before work the next day; the sunny afternoon spent walking from downtown Boston across the river to Harvard Square; the train trip to Manchester-by-the-Sea; the late-night car ride from Provincetown back to Cambridge.
As I look back on that summer, I think that’s the first time I ever consciously connected deep emotions with a sense of place. Two summers before, I had felt a muddled, confused set of emotions surrounding my time in Spain and Portugal, but I hadn’t yet figured out that southern Spain would always make me feel a certain way because of what I experienced there. Now, I realize this is the most important relationship I write about: how a person relates to a place, and why.
My friends and I spent ten days drifting between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, from the western edge of the Pyrenees to the eastern and back again. We took a car from Barcelona to Bilbao, from San Sebastian to Urrugne, from Canet-en-Roussillon to the vineyard where I lived in the spring. We rode a train to a peak that overlooked the Basque countryside; spent hours thinking about modern art in the Guggenheim; and celebrated a friend’s twenty-fifth birthday in the south of France by cooking dinner and reading on the couch. I watched a lightning storm over an inky ocean, swam in a frigid sea, drank wine in the park in Barcelona where I sometimes walk alone. As one of my friends put it, it felt like we were living the plot of an idyllic indie movie.
But all movies have to end, and this one ended in the Barcelona airport on Monday. On the trip, we had spent a lot of time wondering where we were all going to end up in life, at what papers and in what cities, and I thought about how young we all are, and how much pressure I feel as a young person to figure out everything that I want now, to write the best writing of my life now. It’s a sensation that’s nagged me for the entire year, and it hasn’t abated, try as I do to breathe, calm down, reassure myself that there’s a whole life ahead of me.
I’m often overwhelmed by the vastness of all that’s out there. There are so many countries to visit, languages to learn, books to read. There are a thousand different encounters I could have with a thousand people I’ve never met. I want to see it all, and to be moved.
I found a kindred spirit in the Catalan writer Josep Pla, whose compiled diary entries from 1918, called The Gray Notebook, I’m currently reading. He gives words to that vastness I feel: “To look at the sky, listen to the swallows, daydream and contemplate the hazy life of things calms my nerves,” he wrote in one entry. “Youth is a time of sadness — I think — because it is the only age when we respond to the intangible, that is, to what doesn’t exist at all.”
(My default state of being is probably melancholy, as you may have ascertained from my year’s worth of emails.)
Before my friends visited and I felt that familiar bittersweet acceptance of the way things are — namely, that I live far away from the people I love — the end of my fellowship year was feeling similar to the beginning. I spent two weeks reporting on Catalan independence for a few magazine stories. I took the train from Barcelona to visit the Valle de los Caídos, a mausoleum where Franco’s remains are buried, to write about history, memory, and justice in Spain. I remember being captivated by these topics a year ago, and that interest hasn’t subsided.
I’ve spent much of the year trying to understand my experiences within a readable narrative, as documented by these emails. In retrospect, the narrative makes sense, though while I was living it I often felt confused and unsettled.
I eventually traveled a thousand kilometers north of where I had first planned to live. Carmen and her family, as well as a spontaneous reporting trip to Barcelona on October 27, changed the tenor of my year, and how I wanted to live. I learned to love wine and vineyard work to the point of obsession. I was treated as a member of a family that was not mine, and saw an intimate side of life in Spain thanks to their welcoming me. I met a lot of cool women farmers, like Barbara, who’re trying to change machismo culture. I walked twenty-two days across the northern coast of Spain. I saw the grape vine grow over the course of a year, and I finished my year at the end of its life cycle — the harvest.
The year was often difficult. It was a year of uncertainty, then waiting. I felt restless for much of it, out of place, not useful. My first months in Barcelona were lonely and cold. I lacked a sense of purpose and a community of people. I was angry at myself for my faltering Spanish. I was jealous of my friends reporting in the United States. I spent a lot of time wondering where I would be if Haley had lived, and then admonishing myself for thinking that way.
For all of its low points, this year has changed me, and my life. I’m going back to Spain in November to freelance for seven months (that is, if my visa goes through…). I’m applying to graduate school. I’m feeling unending excitement about the writing I’m doing and plan to do. I’m happy.
And for all of its low points, there were many more highs, this year in Spain.
I want to end this note on a journal entry dated October 8, 2017, the day before I left for Spain. I had spent the summer of 2017 driving across southern and central California for the Los Angeles Times, and a few free weeks meandering the east coast to work on a story and see friends. I was feeling restless, uncertain, and sad to be leaving the United States at a time that felt so pivotal for our country, especially for a young journalist. I was envious of friends beginning their careers in journalism. I wanted to start mine, too.
“I am leaving tomorrow and I am anxious about not having a plan, not really knowing what I want, having to pay $900 for a health plan I feel I don’t need, the bureaucracy of needing a place to live so I can get a residence card for the year… I am anxious about having to finish work, anxious about all of the journalists who ask me what I am doing to progress my career, anxious about not knowing Spanish as well as I should and being in this strange middle ground of comprehension. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Mom is crying and I am anxious about that too. I am anxious about having too little clothing, too much clothing, too many emails, too many anxieties. I am anxious because I know there are parts of me that need to change, parts of the past I need to let go of. I have no language for talking about these things, though, and I don’t really have a person, either. I know I want a bright room with books and a place to write. I want to be fluent in Spanish. I want to write. I want to feel healthy. I want to eat food that makes me feel good.
I am anxious because I don’t know which type of suitcase I should bring. Will I travel? Will I stay put? I need to slow down. A year is a long time. Things will settle, eventually. I should just open myself, and breathe…”
There’s a Joan Didion line I like a lot, from Slouching Toward Bethlehem (which, as it happens, I read for the first time in Spain five summers ago). “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.”
There’s a person I was a year ago, and a person I was four years ago, and these people are similar to who I am now but they’re different, in subtle ways. I’ve learned a language and worked a harvest. I’m a lot blonder and tanner than I was a year ago. For the first time in my life, I have some upper body strength. I’m a little less naive and a little less cynical. I feel at peace, even knowing difficult periods will come, as they always do. Most importantly, I’m becoming gentler with myself and others.
Thank you for following along for the year. In total, you’ve read some 29,000 words from me, an effort I greatly appreciate. These emails have helped me make sense of my life in Spain. They helped me more than I could have imagined.
It’s been such a joy to hear from some of you through this correspondence, though mostly it’s been one-sided. I’m so grateful for you all. I’m proud of my friends, especially recent graduates, for what you’ve accomplished in such a short time out of school. I miss you more than you know, but I’ve realized something important this year, something I must never let go of. The word really is a small place — even if it does at times feel vast — especially if you’ve got a lot of good people living all around, like I do, in Temecula, in Berkeley, in Sofia, in San Francisco, in New York, in D.C., in Oxford, in Memphis, in Richmond, in Newtown, in Minneapolis, in Cambridge, in Tacoma, in Beijing, in Sydney, in Rochester, in Stamford, in Chicago, in Madrid, in Torrijos, in Sant Climent Sescebes, in Barcelona.
Thanks for everything. Come visit next year.
P.S. For all my worrying about being legal in Spain, not one person ever asked me for my residence card. Not entering the country, nor leaving. Not once.
16 September 2018
Month 11: Vendimia
We were up before the sun on the second day of the vendimia, rubbing sleep from our eyes as the car sped to the vineyard in Santa Olalla. The morning turned from black to deep blue to a soft violet, then pink, and the friend I had brought to harvest gazed at the land spread out before us in all directions, its gentle golden hills melting into steep mountains in the distance. We were surrounded by a sea of leafy grape vines, 12 hectares that we would pick over the course of several weeks. “I feel like I’m in a Van Gogh painting,” my friend said, and I noticed a star fading in the sky as the sun rose. Then, a fourteen-wheeler, where we would load boxes of picked grapes later in the day, and two cars of day workers pulled up, as did Luis on the tractor. Carmen handed out gloves and vine clippers.
“Escuchad,” listen, Carmen told us. “Don’t cut anything dehydrated, or any of the small bunches high up. And no leaves.”
She sent us off into rows — one per person — and my friend, a recent Harvard graduate who had just moved to Spain, looked at the long line of plants that nearly sagged from the weight of the grapes they carried. “So I take it this isn’t like blueberry picking, where you eat half the berries as you go,” he said.” I laughed. Not at all.
This was the moment I had waited for all year, the vendimia, the grape harvest. I’d first seen these plants in December, when Castilla La Mancha was coated with a layer of frost and the land looked dead. Back then, when I touched the gnarled wood of the vines, I wondered how they could possibly grow bright green leaves and hold five kilograms worth of grapes. I spent the spring tending to plants in northern Catalonia, watching them grow, slowly at first, with a modest sprout here or there, and then suddenly the grapes formed and flowered, filling the air with the scent of soap and the sea, which Barbara tells me is the aroma of a grape blossom. During the summer, as I traveled around Europe, I missed a crucial growth period for the grapes, and when I returned to Barbara’s vineyards in late August, I was amazed to see the tiny green berries turned to plump bunches of fruit whose colors ranged from yellow and light pink to black.
On my first day back with Barbara, in the second-to-last week of August, we woke up early to take grape samples from the garnacha tinta vineyard and test acidity and potential alcohol content. When we got back to the bodega, Barbara mashed the grapes up and smeared them onto a refractometer, a small telescope-like instrument used to measure a grape’s potential alcohol content, and frowned. “Shit,” she said when she got the results.
The problem had to do with this year’s weather. A rainy, humid spring and an unbearably hot summer had led to a conundrum for winemakers across Catalonia: the acidity of the grapes was dropping rapidly, while the potential alcohol content — measured in sugar — remained stubbornly low. In normal years, the grape matured and gained sugar at an equal rate to its loss of acidity, leading to relative equilibrium between the two factors. But this year, winemakers expected their wine to lack that equilibrium. Others lost swaths of vines to mildew, produced by the suffocating humidity. This reality rendered the most important decision of the year, when to pick the grapes, particularly tricky. Start, or wait?
As I’ve learned this year, winemaking is an incredibly delicate process, one that renders the human elaborating wine dependent on the capricious forces of the weather and the once-a-year magic of spontaneous fermentation. A week of heat can change a whole harvest, as can heavy rain in August. Slight variations in temperature within the winery can kickstart — or prevent — fermentation.
Barbara tends toward fatalistic interpretations of the everyday, so the days leading up to the harvest were stressful. Unlike a number of her friends, she hadn’t lost a lot of grapes, but anything could change. The wine could be flat, boring, unsellable. The white could be difficult to ferment.
Her mentality was contagious. The afternoon before we were poised to arrancar la vendimia (this phrase means start the harvest, but strangely, the word arrancar out of this context means to destroy or tear up), the sky darkened, and rain fell. I opened the window and felt the familiar softness to the air that came with the strong northern Catalan winds, known as the Tramuntana, and knew that the land would be too muddy to harvest the next day, that we would miss another crucial day. Rains would dilute the grapes even more, and the potential alcohol content would never rise. To add to the stress, I had to return to Castilla La Mancha by the end of the week to help Carmen with her harvest, and was worried I wouldn’t pick a single grape for Barbara.
When Barbara came downstairs to the kitchen, where I was looking solemnly out the window, I asked what we would do. She glanced up from her cup of tea. “Oh, this? It’s nothing. We are still working tomorrow.”
The harvest with Barbara was a fiesta, with volunteer harvesters from around the world, rich breakfasts of Catalan sausage and cheese, relatively easy days of picking in cool temperatures. At the end of each work day, Barbara invited the harvesters to lunch, where we drank a lot of wine and shared stories until nightfall. Between work days, I picked blackberries near the river and made cobbler. Some days, we pressed the grapes, a relatively laborious process involving squeezing every last ounce of juice out of the fruit. One day I even got to stomp on grapes, fulfilling a year-long dream.
If Catalonia was a fiesta, Castilla La Mancha was pure work. Imagine harvesting 40,000 kilograms (88,000 pounds) of grapes in four days. Add to the work 85 degree weather, unrelenting sun, and no wind. After each day, we had to unload the truck at the bodega — about 40 kilometers from the vineyard — where four men spent half an hour throwing 30-pound boxes of grapes into the de-stemming machine. After a week of fermenting the wine on grape skins, we would then press thousands of pounds of skins, and transfer all the thousands of liters of wine into a new depository. These are big numbers, and I feel them in my arms, back, and legs.
When it comes to winemaking, so much of the work is waiting and watching, acts of stubborn patience. You wait for the grape juice to begin fermenting, and each day after, you return to the bodega to mix the fermenting liquid so the skins don’t dry out. You measure the density of the juice to determine when fermentation had finished. Then you spend days pressing grape skins to add greater complexity (from the tannic skins) to the wine. Hoses and pumps break and wine spills everywhere. Half of the work in the bodega is cleanup.
The work is also dangerous, if you’re not careful. Fermenting wine secretes massive amounts carbon dioxide, which hits the nose like a sudden slap and makes it difficult to breathe. Carmen told me once a young winemaker from Galicia was taking wine samples from her depository when she inhaled too much carbon dioxide. She fell into the fermenting grape juice, and her body was found in the depository the next day.
I’ve been lucky to remain healthy during the vendimia, save some back pain from bending down to pick grapes. Most of my jeans are now stained with purple grape juice. I’ve learned more about chemistry over the past month than I did in four years at university. I am exhausted, physically and mentally. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience that was both physically and intellectually strenuous at the same time. The physical difficulty is obvious, but intellectually, it was fascinating attempting to understand fermentation, and the minute decisions that go into making a particular wine taste the way it tastes. You need a healthy grape for wine, but you also need a smart person to make it. Fermentation can happen without human interference — if crushed grapes are left in a bucket for a week, they’ll turn, for at least a little while, into wine — but the result will likely be disgusting.
I left Castilla La Mancha yesterday afternoon and am, once again, back in Barcelona to write, and maybe help with some harvests south of here. It’s been nearly a year since the Catalan referendum on independence, which is why I returned. Puigdemont is still living in Brussels. Jailed Catalan politicians go on trial sometime at the end of the year, or early 2019, after a year in prison.
I go home to California in three weeks. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be back in Spain for another year, so I’m not saying goodbye to anyone. I haven’t thought about returning home much, though I don’t know why. Maybe it has something to do with the end to a magical year, and the slow start of the rest of my life, and the recognition that normal life isn’t going to play out in the Catalan countryside, or the sun-baked vineyards in Castilla La Mancha, where wine costs me 9€ a bottle and brilliant, pensive winemakers are always available for a thoughtful conversation about their history, their land, their fears. These places and people will stay with me, always. They’ve changed me, irrevocably, and I’m starting to wrangle with exactly how. I’m looking for an adequate way to give thanks. But I’m not leaving. At least, not yet.
Catch you in America,
13 August 2018
Month ten: Encounters in four countries
During my last week on the Camino, in a dusty Galician town about 100 kilometers from Santiago de Compostela, I met a Hungarian woman walking to sort through her thoughts on a painful family conflict. We were sitting at a bar outside the dark, crowded monastery where we would sleep, and she was the oldest of our group, a late-30-something sipping light beer among wandering recent college graduates. She had four kids, full-time work, and an apartment in Budapest.
She was surprisingly frank when we asked her why she was walking. “My husband has a lover in another country, he is in love with her, and he wants to move out,” she told us with a wry smile.
On a rainy afternoon two weeks later, I met her on the west side of the Danube River in Budapest. She drove us to Memento Park, a space filled with Communist statues that used to adorn the streets and squares of the city. We strolled by hulking men lunging forward and grasping toward the sky; solemn cubist portrayals of Marx and Engels; a man in a Russian cap shaking hands with a Hungarian worker. She told me where each had stood before the Soviet Union dissolved, narrating the communist geography of the city through the perspective of the school girl she had been when she saw the statues in their original places.
Things with her husband were stagnant, she said, but she had hope. You can’t just walk out on 16 years of commitment. Or so she believed.
Then she took me to a coffeehouse and we ate cake.
Even though I drifted more in the past month than I have over the rest of the year, I felt at home in all of the places I visited, thanks to the people I met. I also felt less alone because I was loosely following a portion of Haley’s Let’s Go itinerary from four years ago. In most of the places she visited, Haley recommended the following: eat a lot of chocolate, lounge in coffee shops or parks and write, and meet interesting people.
I followed in earnest.
Haley took me to majestic coffee shops in Vienna, where everyone eats cake and reads the newspaper for the entire afternoon, a pianist playing somewhere at the front. (I made a mental note that in Central Europe, eating cake is perfectly acceptable, even expected, at any time of day, should I ever be in want of a place to relocate…) At her recommendation, I walked miles down the Danube, to the beaches where young people go to swim in the summer, and to the graffiti-splattered walkway where people of all ages lounge at night, drinking champagne out of plastic cups and listening to music. I saw what she saw, like the the ruin bars in Budapest, old Soviet buildings converted into funky pubs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At sunset, she took me up the giant hill overlooking the city, though I didn’t run up like she did.
I met two of her friends from Vienna, and at the coffee shop where we talked, we met another guy our age, a Viennese-Atlantan, who accompanied me to chocolate and ice cream shops the next day. In Budapest, I spent an hour taking to the guide for the Communist Walking Tour of Budapest, whose father was an opposition journalist during the regime. I don’t know if Haley spent much of her time in Budapest learning about Communism, but that’s what I did, and it was refreshing to learn about the Cold War history of another country. Sometimes I realize I miss going to class. It’s been more than a year since I graduated.
All the solo backpacking felt eerily similar to my Let’s Go trip four years ago. I traveled through different countries this time, but here I was again, another summer moving from hostel to hostel, trying to understand the cities as quickly as I could, walking a lot. This time, I had no obligation to write — four years ago, I had insane weekly writing requirements, something like three blog posts, 10 accommodations reviews, 10 restaurant reviews, 10 sight reviews, a few features, and more. So I wandered and I thought and I imagined Haley writing in these places.
After my two weeks of traveling, I returned to Spain for a fair at a dusty winery in Catalonia. All of my wine friends from over the year, save Barbara, attended. It was hot and sunny and it felt like we were in a valley in the middle of nowhere. I almost cried. I didn’t realize how much I missed the place, the language, the way people talked about wine.
Carmen and wine family took me to a beach in Valencia, where we ate and swam and slept. We’re back in La Mancha now. We went to the vineyard last night to gather Tempranillo grapes as he sun was setting. Carmen and Luis needed to test their acidity, sugar, and alcohol levels to gauge when to harvest. We walked through the vines, picking and tasting. The grapes were big and dark purple. I thought they tasted sweet, but Carmen said they needed more time, that they were too acidic. We’ll harvest in nine days, she suspects.
I’m writing about the first leg of my central Europe trip last. I still haven’t found the right words to write about it. I’ve tried to write about it, just as personal writing, for the past month, and still I struggle. Everything I write is bad. It all feels stilted. Nothing feels real. These emotions are the most complicated I’ve ever had to write about. So I’m giving up for the time being and writing other things. Those things are slightly less bad. (Writing is hard.)
I went to the whirlpool in Bavaria where Haley drowned. It was the fourth anniversary of her death. July 18. A guide walked me upstream to the waterfall that pours into the whirlpool and taught me how to tell the difference between a dangerous rapid and a safe one. When water hits a rock, he told me, it should create a small pillow of water, visible only to the people who know how to look for them. He pointed them out to me as we walked; rocks pierced the surface and pushed the water right and left, forming what looked like an oblong bubble on the upstream face of the rock.
“Moving water needs somewhere to go,” he said. That’s why it makes sense water striking a rock would be pushed up to form the pillow. What’s dangerous, he said, is when a rock doesn’t have the pillow of water. That means there’s a hole somewhere in the rock. Instead of pushing up, the water is sucked below. But the water appears calm.
I stayed in the home of the man who was with her when she died. He’s 27 now, but he was about my age when the accident happened. It’s strange how time passes. How four years can feel like everything and nothing. For me, all of college passed. I feel a lot older than when I was 18 and traveling Spain and Portugal alone. I’m back in Spain traveling alone, but this time I’m not (as) naive. I speak Spanish. I am a lot more cynical. He is on his second year in a Ph.D. program. He might want to move to New York one day. His father told me, in broken English, that after Haley died, he became an adult fast. The man told me he can’t feel joy anymore. He lives at an unrelenting neutral.
We talked about Haley for hours. This was the first time in a long time I had met someone with no need for context. Someone for whom I didn’t have to build Haley’s character and draw a portrait of her to have them understand who she was, and why I am still hurt four years later, even though I only knew her for six months. This was someone who understood her more than I did. Their friendship was a safe house for Haley when she was overwhelmed that first year of college.
He doesn’t want to be written about and I told him I wouldn’t write much. So I’ll end with this. When I left, I took the train from his town to Munich and I was so stunned that I could hardly pay attention to whatever landscape was rushing past. I had never met him before. I had spent four years wondering about him, and now I knew. He had traveled five hours from where he studies to pick me up from the airport and take me to his childhood home. He answered everything I asked. He showed me around his town, took me to lakes and fields and forests.
When we were waiting for the guide to show up and bring me to the waterfall, he told me about the cows in that part of Bavaria. When it gets hot in the summertime, the cows — which are a soft cream color and have doe eyes — walk up the steep, grassy mountains to escape the heat. When the cows make it back down to the valley, the Bavarians say, summer is over.
Once in a while I wonder when the cows will come back.
Write you after the harvest,
10 July 2018
Month 9: I have walked 400 miles
I carry an 8 kilogram backpack every day on my walk from Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela, a walk that follows the Bay of Biscay down the coast from Basque Country to Cantabria to Asturias and finally, 600 kilometers later, to Galicia.
I carry two paperback books, two notebooks, five changes of underwear (two too many for El Camino), a few shorts and shirts, a pair of blister-prevention socks, a rain coat, a water bottle, and usually half a chocolate bar. I carry an aching left shoulder and a calloused pair of heels, rubbed down by daily walks of 30 kilometers or more in worn hiking boots. I carry my scratch-latticed legs, cut up from a quick slide down a rocky mountain and burned by frequent brushing with stinging nettle leaves. Every step forward on hot black asphalt reminds me of the things I carry in my backpack, as does each step up a muddy hill during a thunderstorm, or across a 5 kilometer beach at daybreak. Most days, I think, I am carrying too much stuff.
People I’ve met on El Camino del Norte, the rugged alternative coastal route to the more popular Camino Frances, tend to have fewer things than me. Connie from Germany, with whom I walked 60 kilometers before our day on the mountain Pico del Sol, near Laredo, sprained her ankle and forced her to stop, had a pack that looked smaller than my backpack at school. Inge, a waitress from Holland, and her boyfriend Sido, a beekeeper, both wore the same outfits every day on their three week walk. Only Fran from Sevilla had a larger pack than me, but he carried a Celtic flute and juggling balls when he walked, so he could entertain whatever folks were lying around the municipal hostels at night, resting for another long day on the road.
Tomorrow I arrive in Santiago after 22 days of walking. For a lot of people, El Camino marks a before and after in their lives. Many quit their jobs to walk, or walk because they’ve quit their jobs. Some are processing unexpected breakups. One woman I met is walking because she learned her husband is cheating on her, and she needed a few weeks of head space to think about what makes her happy before going home to her four young kids. The stories are different but all the same. Burnout, stress, inability to face an uncertain future. People travel thousands of miles to walk hundreds more and think. El Camino is a physical and mental distance that they can’t find at home. So they come to Spain.
My go-to answer to the freshman orientation-esque question of “Why are you doing El Camino?” is mostly a joke: I am homeless this month, needed to find a cheap place to live, and like walking. El Camino is pretty cheap, given that I already live in Spain. With a credential to prove that you really are walking to Santiago, you can stay in 6 euro a night pilgrim’s albergues, bare minimum municipal hostels that give you a bed to sleep and sometimes coffee for breakfast. My favorite places are the donativos, homes that owners have opened up to Camino walkers, homemade dinner and breakfast provided. Usually the hospitaleros, the owners, are people who walked El Camino and felt so inspired by the generosity of people they met that they wanted to dedicate their lives to helping other pilgrims. I watched the Spain-Russia World Cup game at one donativo with a bunch of Valencians during a thunderstorm; another time, I was deemed unofficial Spanish-to-English translator for a Marxist priest who ran a donativo from his home in the rolling hills of western Cantabria.
These are places for resting. They are the closest thing to home when you pack up and move on each day. (One albergue was called aves de paso, or birds of passing/migratory birds. I found the name quite apt.)
There’s a beauty and simplicity to the daily routine on the trail. I wake up each morning at six, pack up my bag, and start walking just as the sun rises. I take a break three hours in for a coffee in some small town, chat with the bartender, and go on my way. Some days the walk is along a grassy cliff overlooking the sea, birds circling overhead; other days it’s in the middle of a forest crisscrossed with creeks. I walk until I’m tired and find my place to sleep. I eat, I read, I talk to other walkers. When I’m lucky, I have the beach.
Every day I arrive sweaty and exhausted at my destination, I’m amazed at what my body has done. I had two 50 kilometer days, back to back, in the pouring rain, and I couldn’t stand for a few hours after. But the next morning, my feet were rested and ready to walk again. I’ve spent 22 days carrying myself to Santiago, and mostly I’ve stayed whole. (The trail teaches you about your body’s weak spots, though. My left shoulder is my Achilles heel, I’ve learned.)
At the same time, walking El Camino is allowing yourself to be carried. Yellow arrows, or yellow seashells, mark the trail the entire way, so the walker is charged with making few critical decisions in getting to Santiago. In following the arrows, you feel guided, sometimes even helpless, putting all of your faith in the small yellow signs, trusting they’ll lead you through northern Spain. This total guidance has been refreshing. After nine months of planning and worrying, structuring every aspect of my daily life in Spain, overthinking it all, I’ve found a welcoming change in throwing myself completely to the trail and letting it lead me 400 miles. I don’t worry about where I’ll sleep each night; I just walk until I grow tired and hope there’s an open bed nearby. There always is.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes about a sort of religiosity to the arrows in his book about pilgrimages, called A Sense of Direction (he did El Camino Frances, and I’m still trying to figure out if he enjoyed it…). I’m quoting him quoting the writer Mircea Eliade: “The sign of the sacred is something that doesn’t belong to the world, something that establishes itself as necessarily and self-evidently true; it provides orientation, choreographs our movements.” The original pilgrimage to Santiago on The Way of Saint James, was, of course, religious; in the Middle Ages, pilgrims would travel across Europe to Santiago, where Saint James’s remains were purportedly buried after being carried from Jerusalem. But I like to think there’s some earthly spirituality in giving oneself over the almighty power of yellow arrows painted onto crumbling walls or telephone poles.
Or rather, I need to believe in something.
There’s a lot more I want to write about my long walk. I want to write about the old women who pop their heads out of windows to tell me “ojo,” or watch out, as a young woman walking through northern Spain alone. I want to write about the Asturian woman who bought me five glasses of sidra so she could keep sitting with me at the bar in Gijon and talk about her family. I want to write about Allison, the recent Amherst grad who has, over the course of five intensely introspective days walking together, become someone I can now call a close friend. I want to write about my concerns over some of the unsustainable tourism you see on El Camino; the comfort in seeing familiar faces day after day in different albergues; the immense mental challenge and isolation of walking a week without anyone else. I want to write about learning how to trust people, and how to walk with people. I often walk alone. I’m trying to change this.
There’s so much to write about, but the sun is going down in this most western part of Spain, and I have one last walk to make tomorrow.
I’ll leave you with a final thought.
The word andar, or “to walk,” is stuck in my head, for obvious reasons. A Catalan friend texted me the other day asking me “por dónde andas,” meaning “where are you these days,” but the literal translation is through where do you walk? I laughed when I read the message and said, “estoy andando,” or, I am walking.
There’s a line from an Antonio Machado poem that is scrawled on many walls around here.
Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.
Walker, there is no path, the path is made by walking.
Until we walk together,
9 June 2018
Month 8: The fourth goodbye
It’s June 9. For the first time all spring, it’s hot and dry. These have been a steamy, sticky few months, with record rainfall in northern Catalonia after years of drought, but today, as I sit in the shade on the farmhouse terrace, watching swallows dart back and forth, it’s easy to forget just how much water the earth’s taken this spring. (The Spanish word for swallow is golondrina — goal uhn dree nuh— which may be one of the most beautiful words I’ve learned here.) At first, the rain was a welcome promise of a good harvest, but after the third straight week of afternoon showers, soaring temperatures, and no wind, anxiety set in. The climate created conditions for fungus and mildew, which in 2016 spoiled 80 percent of Barbara and Joan Carles’s grape production.
To prevent the spread of fungus, we’ve been spraying the plants with sulfur and copper. At first, this made me sad, since the words “copper” and “sulfur” don’t sound very ecological. I’ve since learned that it’s common practice among natural winemakers. The only winemakers I know who don’t use sulfur or copper are Carmen and Luis, but in dry Castilla Mancha, they don’t need to worry about humidity.
Before spraying the copper, we needed to pluck off extraneous branches and braid the remaining ones together so a tractor could fit through the rows of vines. It is long and repetitive work, but I’ve liked working in the quiet morning and gazing at the mountains, or the plains, or the sea; every vineyard overlooks something picturesque. In doing this work, I have touched nearly 10,000 plants in the last three weeks. I can tell the difference between the leaf of tempranillo and garnacha peluda. I know which leaves the plants use for photosynthesis, and which are extraneous.
And now it’s over.
Joan Carles and Barbara have left for a well-deserved vacation to Cuba and I will leave here tomorrow. I’m spending a few days in Basque Country for a story, and then I head into my barely-sketched out summer. I’ve never been to País Vasco and I’m excited. Their native language is Euskara, purportedly the oldest language in Europe (it also doesn’t have any similarities to Spanish). The joke among Spaniards is that Vascos are brutes. They have 300-pound stone rolling contests, something of a tradition, and play a lot of aggressive handball.
For the first time this year, I’m not sure I’m ready to move on. Before, when I left Granada, and Torrijos, and Barcelona, I felt restless. I needed to go. I had learned what I needed to learn and craved something new. But here, in L’Albera, I’ve felt a contentment I’ve never experienced in my life. Sure, I still often feel a nagging anxiety about the future, about where I’ll live and what I’ll write when the fellowship is done, but if the feeling is ever overwhelming, I can go walk for ten miles in any direction — to the mountains, up the river, across the military practice site (only when they’re not shooting) to the castle in the hills that looks over the whole region — and clear my head. I can sit on a big granite rock at dusk and listen to frogs chirp until nightfall. I can rest under a tree and watch rain pattering on the vineyards. I can wander through the hills to Espolla, and then another hour east, to Rabós, where I like to sit on a stone bench in the deserted garden of an old church and watch cows graze in green pasture. If I really need to get away, I can catch the bus to Figueres, and then the train to Llançá, where I can walk a mile or two down the coast— or better yet, Barbara can drive me, and we can sit with our feet in the water for a few hours and then go grab a beer.
I’ll miss being able to walk through the woods and pick a stalk of wild fennel to chew on. I’ll miss eating apricots from the garden and yogurt made with the milk of sheep who roam near the vineyards. I’ll miss stumbling through the forest and encountering small waterfalls or megalithic worship sites. I’ll miss riding on the back of a tractor in the rain. I’ll miss the Pyrenees, always dusted in snow, and the arm of the L’Albera mountains that wraps around the valley and reaches out to the sea, the tip dotted with white chateaus that look, from a distance, a little like stars painted on a blue canvas. I’ll miss all the smells and sounds that come with a place like this — the punctual whistling of a nearby owl each night at 9; the aroma of fresh pasta wafting through the window on a breezy afternoon.
I’ll miss the place, and I’ll also miss Barbara. She’s the closest friend I have here. Carmen had been a confidante and a friend as well, but, perhaps because she has kids and a daughter who is close to my age, she’s also played a motherly role with me. Barbara, on the other hand, is the friend who jokes and complains, gossips, tells funny stories, shares raw ideas, invites me to get away with her when she needs to get away. Because she’s Italian, but has lived in Catalonia for 12 years, she gives me an outsider’s insider perspective on Catalans and Spaniards, a perspective that’s not unbiased but instead more like mine — curious, questioning everyone and why they believe what they believe. She believes in the project of a united Europe but not in monarchies within it; for this reason, she empathizes with a Catalans who want to separate from Spain (which, if you didn’t know, has a king who doesn’t do much but show up and cost taxpayers a lot of money). But she is deeply skeptical of Catalan nationalists who trumpet their region and culture like it’s the richest in the world. She’s quick to make friends but protective of her limited free time. She’s been incredibly gracious with me. She let me do practically all vineyard work — which is a sign of immense trust, because you can do a lot of damage to the vines if you’re inexperienced — and patiently taught me everything she knew about this work.
As much as I would love to stay, it’s best I move on. There’s no work here now, and the people who have made it such a welcoming home for me are gone. Instead, I’ll wander around Europe for the summer before being called back for the harvest, first for the white grape harvest with Barbara (because it will be so hot in mid-August, we’ll harvest at 3 a.m. with headlamps!) and the red grape harvest with Carmen.
On that note, I wasn’t planning on notifying many people on my summer plans until after the fact, but I will, and I’ll tell you why in a very long and roundabout way. It has to do with Anthony Bourdain, though I’m not entirely sure why.
Anthony Bourdain’s suicide has been really devastating for me, in a way that’s surprised me. I didn’t watch many of his shows growing up, because I didn’t watch a lot of television, period, but those I did watch were enrapturing. He found a simple but powerful form of narrative to bring American viewers stories of far flung places, in a way that wasn’t othering or white-savior-ey. It was life as it was.
This year, I’ve thought about his work now and again, because he was probably the first person who taught me the value of enjoying a meal. My family has always been very individualistic about our meals. Often when I go home, lunch or dinner is like every man for himself; I tend to make a sandwich or an egg and eat it on the couch while reading, my mom might make herself something and eat quickly at the table, and my dad doesn’t gets home from work until late, so he doesn’t eat.For me, eating, as I’ve written here before, was only a necessity, a fuel-refill to continue working. The mentality followed me to college, where I ate most of my dining hall meals alone, in ten minutes, so I could get back to whatever I was doing before.
Eating has become the center of my life in Spain. Eating here is about five hour lunches paired with good wine and conversations about how the winaker made that wine. It’s about discussing the history of a region where the food and wine comes from, the weather of the place, the day-to-day work that goes into making that thing that arrives at your table and tastes so good. (If you want to read more about what I mean with all this, my magazine story about wine and independensitas just came out in Guernica: https://www.guernicamag.com/among-catalan-winemakers-separatism-uncorked/
Anthony Bourdain did all that and more. He celebrated the people who made food, how they ate it, and with whom they ate. He cared about their personal and political histories. Food, he said often, is political. (Case in point in Catalonia: A certain faction of die-hard independentistas believes the correct Catalan way if eating pan con tomate is with garlic and specific Catalan tomatoes, which are smaller than other varieties.)
I’ve read a lot online in the wake of his death about how we never know the demons that destroy people, that the unlikeliest of individuals, like Bourdain, could be suffering immensely. I remember reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2017 profile of Bourdain and finishing it with a lingering feeling the man wasn’t entirely happy, that underneath the veneer of success something might be wrong. I don’t know why I thought that then, but I think I’ve figured it out now, thanks to something I re-read in the profile.
“‘I change location every two weeks,’ he told me. ‘I’m not a cook, nor am I a journalist. The kind of care and feeding required of friends, I’m frankly incapable of. I’m not there. I’m not going to remember your birthday. I’m not going to be there for the important moments in your life. We are not going to reliably hang out, no matter how I feel about you. For fifteen years, more or less, I’ve been travelling two hundred days a year. I make very good friends a week at a time.’”
After this year of making fast friends, leaving them behind, and making new ones all the same without ever having a stable place to return to, I think I understand this feeling, at least a little bit. It’s exhausting and sad and makes you wonder what real strong long-term relationships feel like. It makes you wonder if you’re capable of them. And then you realize that your whole life here (at least for me, Spain) is about connecting with people, telling stories about people deeply connected to their place. But while you’re telling their stories you yourself are without one.
The part that’s most devastating to me isn’t that the man had wealth and fame and success as a journalist and still couldn’t go on living. For me, it’s most devastating that he spend the last 20 years of his life documenting humanity and its basic pleasures, that he knew what fundamental good existed in the world because he saw it daily in his work, but the sum of all that good and beauty could not overcome the darkness he kept within himself.
This line from Radden Keefe’s essay reflecting on the suicide also stuck with me. “Bourdain freely acknowledged that part of the reason he continued to work at such a frantic pace might have been a fear about where his mind might go if he ever sat still,” he wrote.
I have never been suicidal, but I did spend a lot of college struggling with what, in retrospect, I might consider some mild form of depression. Any sort of depression was undiagnosed, because, during my first and only visit to a therapist the fall of sophomore year, a few months after Haley died, the therapist ended our meeting by giving me a diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I remember looking at that diagram as she told me to keep eating, keep sleeping, go to class, and felt so incredibly infantilized that I never went again. Of course I was never going to show the world how hard things were that winter and spring. Of course I was going to keep going to class, doing my work — I think, oddly enough, I got my best grades of college sophomore fall. The mind cannot rest. But after hours, I spent a lot of nights alone, in my room, feeling lonely and aimless and anxious, wondering what I might be doing that very moment if Haley were alive.
I was crushed after Haley’s death. What was hardest for me was grieving what could have been. She and I hadn’t spent a lot of time together in school. We’d only gotten to know each other second semester of that first year of college, and just as we seemed to be finding a rhythm in friendship, we both set off on our respective Let’s Go trips. That was when we really started talking. We compared experiences. We asked each other for advice. Mostly, we told each other stories of our fantastic and overwhelming days. We talked about the next few years of school together, all the things we wanted to do at Harvard and in Boston. I’ll never forget one message she sent me. She said she felt like she was destined to meet a mutual friend of ours in order to become friends with me and Jamie, my roommate for all of college. There was so much ahead for the three of us.
Then she died, and I began blaming her death for my anxieties and loneliness in college. I won’t go into all of this now, but those feelings led me to apply for this fellowship, because I had the rare honest foresight to realize that I would be miserable working an office job at a newspaper, constantly hating myself for not living up to my personal expectations and feeling restless in one place. So I went into this year looking, simply, for ways to be happy.
I’ve thought about these things all year because they’re the reason I’m here. But I’ve been thinking even more about my motivations and experiences during this fellowship because of Anthony Bourdain, and his late life project, and how in the midst of it all he wasn’t happy.
I’m grateful for this fellowship because I think it’s frankly saved my mind. Not to say I wouldn’t be happy, say, in L.A., reporting on the metro desk, but I’ve gotten to see so many different places and meet interesting people who do something completely different than me. I don’t need to tell you how much I’m loving everything about my life here; I already have. I just need to remember these feelings when life is a bit more difficult than traveling around northern Spain living on vineyards.
There’s no through line to why Bourdain is prompting me to tell you what I’m doing this summer, but I now feel like I need to share before the fact instead of after. So you can know where my mind will be the next few months. So if I cease contact for a few days or weeks, you’ll know why.
The summer plan goes as follows: I do El Camino for a month (or I drop that idea and write news stories TBD) and on July 18, four years to the day since Haley’s death, I fly to Munich, then take the train south to the town where a friend of hers lives, the friend who was with her when she died in 2014. He’s set me up with a guide who will take me to the waterfall where Haley slipped and drowned; the friend himself will never go back there. I’ve been waiting to do this for four years. And don’t worry, mom. I’ve spoken with Haley’s aunt, who did this a few years ago. I will probably be the most careful person to walk to this waterfall. And I have a trained professional with me.
I don’t know what I’m looking for or expecting out if this trip. I just know I want to talk to the last person Haley talked to, and I want to see the last place she ever saw.
After Munich, I’m going to Vienna and Budapest, places Haley loved when she did Let’s Go, to try out a few of her recommendations. She ate a lot of dessert in Vienna, and I am very ready. Then, the harvest, and then the actual process of winemaking, the greatest mystery of all.
As for what happened “next,” ie what I do with myself after October 10, the day the fellowship is officially over, I have an exciting new plan that would fulfill my perhaps unrealistic dream of never working out of an office. I’m applying to jobs in the U.S., but LAT recently asked me what my situation in Spain was, and if I could be their go to freelancer. To be honest, I had not considered staying in Spain after the fellowship. If I were to freelance, I figured I would go to Mexico. But I know this country and love it and want to see more of it while I can, now that I can.
They asked me after I’d gone to Barcelona to write a story about the new Catalan president, who was sworn in the same day as the new Spain prime minister. A lot of news has happened here in the past month. Mariano Rajoy was ousted after facing a no-confidence vote related to corruption in his party, and a new socialist prime minister has taken the helm. He’s a self-proclaimed feminist; his cabinet is majority women, for the first time in Spain’s democratic history( I’d also feel comfortable saying in all of its history of kings and dictators …). So, with all this news happening — new PM, new Catalan president who is still fighting for independence, Puigdemont still abroad, feminism in Spain on the rise, plus the possibility of Italy leaving the eurozone and the general story of Europe and migration and populism right now, etc etc etc — I figured this is probably the only time in my life I’ll have the unfettered opportunity to write whatever I want about an entire country, and possibly a whole continent.
The only problem is the visa. And I thought I was done with all of that nonsense. I have a plan but have yet to execute it, so I’ll hold off on any promises until I am near certain my visa plan will work. Part of the visa plan involves a promise to write a wine book. Wouldn’t that be fun?
(Another problem is that LAT doesn’t comply with the new EU privacy laws, so I can’t actually read any of my stories…)
Not sure I’ll write an email next month. If I’m on El Camino I may not — all about mindfulness, you know? But if I decide to wander around and report instead, maybe I will.
To the friends starting newspaper internships soon, or have already started: enjoy! Send me stories. I would love to read.
Until next time,
15 May 2018
Month Seven: Wind, Cows, Men
You cannot escape the wind. It creeps up under the floorboards. Slips through the cracks in the windows. Howls down the chimney. Indoors, the sound follows you like a shadow, like creaking footsteps in an old house. Outside, the creaking becomes a scream. Cows fall into the River Anyet and disappear. The clouds curling around the L’Albera mountains stretch into the shape of serpents. It’s said people of Alt Empordà se vuelve loca — go mad — during the Tramuntana, the blistering cold wind that blows south off the Pyrenees from France.
The wind is so powerful it reshapes the landscape. Scraggly pine trees on the coast bend so far to the south they’re nearly horizontal, giving the seaside city of Lança a permanently windswept appearance, even when it’s calm out. (The other force to shape the the northern Catalan coast, I’ve heard, was Francisco Franco, who during his dictatorship destroyed forests in order to plant pines by the sea.)
It’s a wind that captivates the popular imagination, a wind that divides Catalans, as the newspaper Vanguardia put it a few years ago, “between love and hate.” For one native writer, Josep Pla, the Tramuntana inspires both fear and admiration. “These winds depress, numb, shrink the human body, produce protests perfectly unintelligible. The Tramuntana is bad news, because it’s destructive: it’s a cosmic force superior to any human form…”
But he later writes, “I seem to have understood the reason for the dark, ancestral admiration people of my country feel for this wind. This admiration persists… because the climate in the air of the Tramuntana is literally an ideal climate — a tonic climate, vital, friendly, profoundly hygienic and purifying.”
Others are not so conflicted in their attitudes toward the wind.“Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne /Me rendra fou,” wrote Victor Hugo in the poem “Gastibelza,” about a Basque farmer who falls in love with a Spanish woman. Translation: “The roar of the wind that blows across the mountain/will drive me mad.”
I grew up with hot, dry winds in Southern California. The Santa Ana marks the start to fire season. It stirs up dust and flames and spreads an eerie electric energy throughout the region. Joan Didion described the Santa Ana for a 1965 essay in the Saturday Evening Post, writing “There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension.” There was, I remember, always some atmosphere of uncertain anxiety, of waiting, during the winds. Where would the fires burn? How many houses would smolder? In seventh grade, the fires burned the hills a few miles from home, the sky was black with smoke, and school closed down for several days.
The Tramuntana, which means North Wind in Catalan, is a colder wind than the Santa Ana and blows all year round. It’s a blessing and a curse for winemakers like Barbara and Joan Carles, because it protect vines from molds that plague humid regions, but it also carries off much-needed water.
Life goes with the Tramuntana, and farmers go out to the fields as usual, even though the winds make any kind of work — digging, planting, driving a tractor — exhausting. One day a few weeks ago, we grafted around 400 vine plants with the Tramuntana blowing dust and roots at our faces. I was the enterradora, the digger, tasked with covering the newly-grafted vine plants with fresh soil so they wouldn’t dry out and die. The winds dried the dirt into hard, cracked earth, making the digging near impossible. It was demanding physical work, the kind I am not used to, labor that required me to muster force from every part of my body, my shoulders, my back, my thighs, abdomen, calves, hands. My bones tingled each time the shovel’s blade struck earth, and my hands ached, but I would not stop, because no one else was stopping, and I didn’t want to seem weak. The mid-afternoon sun, hanging off-center in a soft blue sky, was my daily savior from the pain. The work day was over; it was time for lunch.
One day, as I dug, Joan Carles grinned at me with his silly buck-toothed smile and turned to the three other men working. “This is not normal,” he joked. “We have a California digger, blonde and with green eyes, a pretty digger.”
I was an unusual sight, the girl doing men’s work. I didn’t need Joan Carles to tell me this; I’ve walked through the sleepy agricultural towns of L’Albera and have not once seen a woman besides his wife, Barbara, shoveling dirt, driving a tractor, clipping branches. I’ve rarely seen women outside at all. When I do, they are driving, or walking back from the market, or sitting on a sunny terrace chatting over coffee with a friend, also a woman.
That Barbara worked at all became the joke of the week among the group working in the vineyard. There were six of us: Joan Carles and Barbara, the winemakers; Jose and Antonio, 70-year-old Andalucían brothers; Idreesa, a worker from The Gambia; and me, the California digger.
“Barbara shouldn’t be out here,” said Jose, the older of the brothers. Jose was the former fire chief of Figueres, and called himself “maestro,” or teacher, because he had once been Joan Carles’s boss in the fire department, and because he taught him how to graft. “Where are the heels?” he asked Barbara. She wore dirty field pants and mud-caked boots as she cut through thick wood with a grafting knife. “You should be sitting with your heels on the Rambla of Figueres, drinking a beer, passing the day.”
We all laughed, Barbara the loudest. She kept the joke up for the next few days. “Forgot my heels this morning!” she yelled from her spot in the dirt. “Now all I need are my heels and I can go dancing,” she said to Jose one afternoon, after he made her a skirt of vine branches to cover her exposed lower back from the harsh sun.
Jose called himself my maestro, too — he taught me how to dig. How to stand with my feet planted behind the root and scrape the dry earth in a circular motion, how to drag the pile of loose dirt inward toward the plant. “You shouldn’t dig so close to the root, otherwise you’ll damage it. Don’t bend over so much. Let me show you.” The 70-year old retired firefighter took the shovel from my hands and dug for me. My face burned — digging shouldn’t be that difficult, or so I thought, but the way the men chided me made it seem that there was only one technique, a golden rule, something they all knew and I didn’t.
One day during a water break, I tried to remember the last time I wore heels. Nearly a year ago, for a few hours at graduation before I packed them up into a suitcase and moved them back to California. I looked at my dusty boots, my twice-used socks, my barbed-wire ripped blue jeans, my sweat stained t-shirt, my hands, which were getting rougher and tanner each day I was out in the vineyard. The men’s hands were like leather, tough and deep brown. Maybe if I stayed out there for forty years, my hands would be leather, too.
I’ve been thinking about gender a lot during my year, but only when I started working on the vineyard did I begin to understand what it feels like to be a young woman in the wine world. Over the past month, men have tested my physical and intellectual limits. I’ve at times felt powerless, but other times I’ve felt overjoyed at the ability to do something basic. I can’t drive a tractor, but I can dig a hole. I can’t blindly differentiate between a garnacha negre and a carinyena negre, but I can identify a “flaw” in wine, like too much time on the yeast, or reduction.
This month has shown me something I only recently began admitting to myself: I’m disgusted by my own weaknesses, so I work, often through pain, to overcome them, or to hide them. In my mind, giving in to weakness — stopping to walk on a long run, or turning in an exam I barely understood — has always signified failure.
I’m most repulsed at acknowledging the limitations of my own body. When I was a teenager, I played soccer games with sprained ankles and once stayed in my position after suffering a concussion, telling my coach I was fine, even though the field looked blurry. A few weeks into my stay in L’Albera, I got food poisoning, threw up coffee on the terrace, mopped it up, and reported to work that morning, without telling anyone about my churning stomach.
I can attribute a lot of these actions to insecurity over performing my gender, or rather, a particular construction of gender: that women are weak, worse at performing manual labor, and there are such things as “men’s and women’s work.” Here, I don’t want to be the woman who can’t lift a shovel, so I keep digging without mentioning the pain searing through my arms. I play down my exhaustion after attempting to bike 20 kilometers, much of it uphill, to the ocean, a route Joan Carles had said was “easy.”
(I’ll write more on this in the coming months.)
I’m not sure I’ve ever described myself as “tough,” but I suppose that’s what I’m aiming for in my work and leisure time here. I want to prove that I can handle any task in the vineyard, that I’m not just some wine-drinking writer come for a year-long holiday in Spain. I’m here to work, and I want to do all the work, even the “men’s work” — cutting cane stalks, plowing. If only I could drive a tractor (or a manual car).
I also don’t want to be seen as squeamish. For that reason — and genuine curiosity — I went one afternoon to watch a Catalan cook and an Argentine butcher cut out the entrails of a dead cow.
It was a Saturday about a month ago, and I was already irritated that I didn’t see Joan Carles shoot the cow. It was a young black bull, one of the wild ones that lives on the hills around here and eats all the plants in the vineyard. Joan Carles hadn’t shot a cow in a year, and figured it was time the family replenished their freezer with meat. When he spotted the cow grazing in a meadow with two others, he went back to the house to grab his rifle and shot it square through the head. The cow fell, its body stiff.
Then he called the Argentine.
The Argentine, whose name I can’t remember, hunts and carves up deer in Patagonia for half the year, and works as a chef and butcher in Catalonia for the other half. He came to the meadow with red rain boots, a bucket, and a sharp knife. First, he skinned the cow, his knife movements swift, then sliced its belly open, letting all the foul-smelling internal fluids and blood spill out into the grass. Then he cut out the organs: the stomach, liver, lungs, and finally the heart, bigger than my head. He cut off the cow’s lower legs and hooves; Barbara’s dog Perla, a graceful collie, would later prance around the vineyard with a cow leg in her mouth, moments before the forest service would show up to ask if Joan Carles had seen any wild cows around. The Argentine then chopped off the head with a saw, and along with the Catalan cook, devised a pulley system with a tree branch to lift the carcass into the back of their truck to bring back to the house, where they’d continue cutting and cleaning.
We ate wild cow a few days later, with a side of French fries. I ate everything. I never even felt queasy thinking about the dead cow, its eyes open, the blood pouring from its head wound. Tough indeed.
I’ve learned another sort of toughness here, in a place far away from the land of killing wild cows: How to stand your ground against snobby wine men.
One weekend in April, I went down to Barcelona to help Carmen (wine mom) at a wine fair. She’s part of a prestigious biodynamic wine organization called La Renaissance Des Appellations, and she would be manning the fair alone, with some sort of assistance from me. Or so I thought. Instead, she worked a few hours, and told me she had to drive back to Castilla La Mancha. Carmen would leave me alone to explain her wines to experts, in Spanish.
As she was leaving, and I frantically scribbled down notes to remember — suelo de arcilla, clima de extremos, un año en depósito — she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Defend the wine.” Then she was gone.
The entire spectrum of man came to the wine fair that afternoon. There was the excited sommelier-in training, theatrically raising his wine glass above his head to comment on the depth and nuances of the wine’s color. There was the young man in sagging jeans and high top sneakers, slouching and brooding as he walked to show he didn’t care that much about wine, even though he paid nearly $50 for the entrance fee. There was checkered- flannel man who turned to his wife and repeated everything I just said, as though his words somehow made more sense, or his wife just didn’t understand. There were the men in nice clothes who spit their wine out after tasting; backpacked tourist dads with three kids in tow; muscular guys in wife beaters holding the glass with a clenched fist; slim bespectacled men quietly taking notes on the soil quality; tan winemakers, deliriously bored from repeating the same talking points to hundreds of tasters and slinking over to drink a little at the end of the day.
Any confidence I had when Carmen left was quickly faltering by the time the red-faced man — the worst man —came to my table. I was pouring too much wine into people’s tasting glasses, I learned, when a shocked woman nearly shouted “That is quite enough!” Two 20-year-old men swaggered by and mocked the way I spoke, perhaps a little too cheerily for a somber wine event where taters swirled their glasses and spit into professional spitting buckets. Several tasters looked at the Spanish name of the winery, Uva de Vida, then stared hard at my not-Spanish face, then returned their gaze to the winery name. “You’re not from here, are you?” They asked, and in my flawed, accented Spanish, I replied, “What made you guess?” I asked one man if he’d like to try the wine, and he, having heard my spiel to the group before, crossed his arms and frowned like a toad. “Convince me,” he said. He drank a sip, and, unimpressed either by the wine or my talk, walked away, unconvinced.
The worst man didn’t look too bad at first. He was 50 or 60, with unbrushed gray hair sticking to the sweat on his gleaming red forehead. He wore a wrinkled polo shirt tucked into khakis over sagging beer belly, and a wore watch on his wrist but checked the time with his cellphone. He took no notes, nor did he raise his glass toward the overhead lights. A pretty typical guy, the guy you might see ordering a glass of red wine on Friday night at a steakhouse.
The event room was sweltering when he came to my table around 7 p.m. His eyes bulged, his face was shiny. The sweat seemed to ooze from his hairline, out of his armpits, staining the damp polo shirt.
I offered him my memorized speech: We’re in Toledo, in a 14-hectare vineyard with graciano and tempranillo, soil is clay and chalk. 500 meters altitude, extreme climate, little precipitation.
He sipped, and cringed. Sweated more. His face was getting redder. (Carmen’s wines are very alcoholic.) He spit.
“I know Graciano,” he said.“When the Graciano is done well, it is acidic and fresh. This wine… It can’t be saved. It just can’t be saved.”
Defend the wine, Meg, I thought. Sweaty middle-aged men will not defeat me.
He asked me about maturation with grape skins. He asked me about the level of volatility. He asked me about the grams of residual sugars.
I just shrugged. “I’m sorry, I’m not the winemaker. I don’t know.”
He left, disgusted, and I drank a sip of Carmen’s wine to compare my thoughts to his. To me, it was fresh and acidic. Sweaty polo man, I concluded, has bad taste.
That concludes my email in three parts — wind, cows, men. All important elements of the wine world in Catalonia. Next time I’ll email, I’ll be out of L’Albera and venturing into the unknown of the summer, the season just before harvest. My summer plans so far include a lot of walking, and, of course, a lot of wine. Stay tuned.
12 April 2018
Month Six: Dirt Everywhere
How do you put into words the feeling of standing on a tractor cart, ankle-deep in manure mixed with compost, frantically tossing shit into dug-out holes as the tractor speeds through rows of vineyards?
“Do you surf?” Joan Carles asked me, moments before he jolted the tractor forward and I fell hands-first into the pile I was shoveling. He laughed, feigning disappointment. “I thought you were from California.”
I’m having difficulty finding the words to describe the two weeks I’ve lived in Sant Climent de Sescebes, a town in the Catalan region of L’Albera, a 30-minute drive from France. Everything here — from the work I do with the bodega La Gutina, to the colors of the landscape — requires a vocabulary I’ve never encountered before.
The other day I talked about my word struggle with Barbara, one of the winemakers I live and work with. We were sitting in the middle of her garnacha negre vineyard, admiring the contrast between the lime green grape buds and the dark blue mountains to the north. The mid-afternoon sun, cutting through looming grey rain clouds, cast a dusty gold light on the vineyard. “I’d never known there could be so many nuances to light before I came here,” Barbara told me. “I’m not a fan of Dalí, but I understand his colors.” (Dalí was from this part of Spain.)
Barbara has lived in Sant Climent with Joan Carles for 12 years, after moving from Milan. Theirs is a wild love story. The two met at a week-long African dance class in La Jonquera, a Catalan border town, and, as Joan Carles tells it, fell for each other immediately. Barbara couldn’t speak Spanish, and Joan Carles only spoke a bit of Italian, which he learned from Italian hunters who used to come shoot birds on his father’s land when he was a kid. Besides the language barrier, there was another problem: Joan Carles was married with four children.
He’d already been unhappy in his marriage but didn’t have the courage to discuss divorce with his wife. Then came Barbara. After talk of divorce began, Barbara started riding her motorcycle the ten hours from Milan to see Joan Carles. She took Spanish classes in Italy. She moved to Barcelona for eight months, to get herself settled in the country, and then moved two hours north with Joan Carles and his kids, in a farmhouse where he was just starting work on a new bodega.
I’m only getting one side of the story, of course. But I’m stunned at Barbara’s courage. She left her country, learned two new languages — Spanish and Catalan — moved into a farmhouse with four kids that weren’t hers, and started what became one of the most well-known natural wine bodegas in the region. She stopped working in her previous field, architecture, and learned how to work some 30 hectares of land, eight of which she and Joan Carles use to grow grapes for their wine. (She also learned how to care for two horses, two donkeys, five chickens and a rooster, operate a tractor, ferment grapes, etc etc etc.)
The bodega today, called La Gutina, is a relatively new project. They’re a small family business that makes about 10,000 bottles a year and sells most of them directly from their bodega, attached to the house. Anyone can wander into the bodega at any time of the day and ask for a tasting, or to buy a few bottles.
Like all winemakers I meet here, La Gutina wants their wine to be the purest expression of the land it comes from. I’ve heard that sort of line repeated over and over again and bought into it without questions, because it’s romantic. But now, with La Gutina, I’m beginning to understand what it actually means.
The vineyards and the farmhouse are located in a natural park full of chaparral, grassy meadows, ancient boulders, shrubby hills. A small river, called Anyet, cuts through the park and leads to the town of a few hundred people. The snow-capped Pyrenees hover in the distance. From certain vantage points in the hills, you can see the Mediterranean, 20 kilometers away.
Some of La Gutina’s wines are fresh and light, bringing to mind the river, whereas others are more earthy and metallic, perhaps a better overall representation of the region.
The Alt’Empordà region carries the name the Greeks gave it. Scattered across the landscape are dolmens, or megalithic structures ranging from tombs to tables, made out of granite rock. La Gutina has four on their property, discovered by Joan Carles’s father in the ‘80s, including one tomb that’s the namesake of the bodega. They were sites of ancient rituals, and locals say the dolmens give the place a certain spiritual energy — sort of like vortexes in Sedona, Arizona. Whether you believe that or not, the dolmens were purposely constructed on hills with views to the sea, making them peaceful breezy places to sit for a while, as I do often.
It feels like this place expresses itself to the fullest possible extent. The colors, especially the greens of the grain fields and blue-purples of the mountains, look like a highly saturated photo. The winds are so strong I wake up at night, and during the day mistake the sound for oncoming traffic. (A silly thought. There are few cars here.) When it rains, the storm keeps you inside all day.
As a kid growing up in a mid-sized California suburb devoid of character and a sense of place, I dreamt of living in a forest, or the countryside, or on a mountain, or by a river. I wanted to know how to identify trees and frogs and coyote scat. I maintained a sizeable rock collection and could easily name the clouds in the sky, and what weather they would bring. Even when I got older I wanted to be a person who understood the place where I was living, though that hope was short-lived — unlike what I wrote on most of my Harvard freshman forms, I did not minor in evolutionary biology, nor did I ever join the garden or outing club.
Looking back on those interests now, I see two motivations: I wanted to know about my world and I wanted to prove that I knew it, with concrete words. I wanted categories, classification, as a way of understanding and asserting authority. I suppose as humans we all have some innate desire to classify and categorize, in the broadest of senses, but I literally wanted to know Linnaean taxonomy. It’s like I was living my own little Enlightenment, or, as my Latin America classmates might argue, I was trying to conquer a place by ordering it. (Not really on that last point, since I was from the place I was trying to classify. Maybe I’m trying to conquer northern Catalonia instead.)
I won’t continue on this thread too much longer, but clearly I’ve been thinking about it a lot, especially in the context of wine knowledge and authority. You cannot believe how powerful it feels to correctly identify a grape variety in the wine you’re drinking. It’s absurd, I know, but trust me. It’s a game I play with myself now, whenever I’m at wine fairs. I’m pretty good at Garnacha these days. Then there’s the whole gender aspect of asserting knowledge in male spaces — the wine world is very very male, also very white, which is another story. Thinking about my early naturalist tendencies, I often wonder about my scientific potential as a young girl. I always loved science, but remember losing confidence early on. For example, I remember my eighth grade chemistry teacher asking me once after class, “Do you actually know anything or do you just study a lot?” This is a question he would certainly never ask his male students.
In L’Albera, I’m living my childhood dream. I realized this the other day, when Joan Carles sent me out into the wooded area behind his olive groves to search for wild asparagus for dinner. He showed me what the plant looks like in its early stages — a spiny, wide shrub, so I could spot it more easily. I’m keeping a mental inventory of the plants I can now identify: blackberry leaves, fennel, tomillo, lavender, rosemary, cereal grass, malva (a weed in the vineyard that sprouts a beautiful purple flower), zarfa (another weed), and, of course, grape vines, which grow uncultivated on the banks of the river.
I want to know everything about the land. The names of all the hills, which I’m also trying to climb. The names of the northerly wind that blows every afternoon, and the strong easterly wind that brings rain from the sea. The plants we dig up in the vineyard, and the plants in the hills that can be used as eye ointment. The old roads that connect all the pueblos around here, so I can make the 3-hour walk to a monastery, or try to bike to the ocean. (I attempted this last week, riding a bike too big for me and pedaling headfirst into the winds on the highway. It was pitiful, though I did make it about 16 kilometers before catching a bus the rest of the way.)
Like a little kid, I touch and taste and smell everything. I’m trying to improve all of my senses by picking flowers and leaves, pocketing tufts of wool snagged on branches, watching out for wild cows in the distance. (There are too many funny stories to tell. For a quarter of a century, a pack of 50 cows has roamed the hills around here without an owner, and they’re ravenous. They eat all of the plants, including grapes and leaves. This is Joan Carles’s favorite topic to complain about. But he clearly loves the cows — or at least, their meat. “Nothing like a strong, untreated bull,” he says. Still waiting for him to serve me one.)
A respected wine writer/historian told me last month that whenever he visits a vineyard, he licks a rock so he can identify the minerality of wine. Following his lead, I can now tell you about the flavors of granite, slate, and quartz. Rocks are surprisingly tasty.
Perhaps my best subject here is dirt. I am covered in dirt, always. There is dirt in my boots, in my ears, under my fingernails. Last night I woke up from the uncomfortable sensation of sleeping on dirt; I was wearing a sweater with dirt in the pockets. Most days I work with dirt, digging holes for new plants, shoveling manure into the holes, shoveling new dirt into the holes, clearing weeds and heavy rocks from the vineyards. Joan Carles is a dirt aficionado and is constantly on the hunt for dirt teeming with microorganism to introduce to his vineyards.
I was particularly dirty one day when Barbara, Joan Carles, and I drove to Cadaqués, an old fishing town, to help a young couple plant their first vineyard on a cliff overlooking the ocean — the most spectacular vineyard location I’ve seen yet, which says a lot. It was a fiesta-work day. The couple called up some 30 friends to help them dig, drill, plant, and water god knows how many plants, and we worked while drinking jugs of wine and beer and feasting on paella and grilled meat. (At the end of the day, this was a very bad idea. Hard manual labor, heavy food, and lots of sun do not mix well.)
La Gutina has been planting their own new vineyards, with a slightly different process. This is where my English fails me; my vineyard vocabulary is in Spanish. I’ll do my best to describe. They plant their new vineyards with pies americanos, a standard root that doesn’t grow grapes, and let the root plant grow for a few years before injertando (injertar means to graft, in English, though that word means nothing to me), or placing bits of vine branch into a cut in the root. The vineyards will produce healthy grapes a few years after. We’ve been planting rows of garnacha blanca, sent from the vineyard of a friend of mine in Terra Alta, down south, and my job is to cut cane stalks to support the baby vines. I get to use a special knife, which makes me feel very macho.
Ah, to be out of the city!
I’m planning on staying here through early June, to injertar and do the poda en verde, or spring pruning. After months of learning how to taste wine and talking to winemakers about theoretical topics, I am grateful to take part in the work behind the bottle. It’s mind-blowing to drink a glass of natural wine and realize how much labor went into producing the bottle: growing plants, pruning vines, composting, removing weeds by hand, bottling, labeling — not to mention the harvest and fermentation in the fall, which I’ve yet to see.
I haven’t yet discussed independentismo. The family, including the two 20-ish sons who live here, is very pro-independence, like most people in the province of Girona. Every morning they listen to the Catalan radio denouncing the Spanish government, and they go to all the rallies and manifestations they can. It’s been more uncomfortable here not knowing Catalan but everyone speaks Spanish so I get around fine. I’ll write more about the family’s politics later — at the end of the month we’re going to a wine fair in southern France called Indigènes, which brings together winemakers from Catalonia North (Southern France) and Catalonia South (Catalonia).
As for your brief politics update: Puigdemont was arrested in Germany late last month, after the Spanish justice minister renewed an international arrest warrant against him. But the Germany authorities have released him under moderate supervision, arguing that crimes on which he is charged in Spain do not exist in Germany. Namely, Spain is charging him for rebellion, but German law states that treason only exists if there is violence, which Puigdemont did not incite with the Oct. 1 referendum or Oct. 27 independence declaration. So, Puigdemont is non-extraditable. He’ll stay in Germany for the time being. It’s been a fascinating case study in how European states function as a unit, and a big boon for independentistas, who believe the rest of Europe is finally coming around to support their cause. Not so sure about that, but we’ll see.
As the subject line says, I’m at month six of my time here. In the summer, I’ll need to start thinking about what I want to do when I get back to the U.S., probably sometime in mid or late October (though my visa would allow me to stay in Europe until January…). But I’ll keep pushing these future-oriented thoughts off while I can, otherwise I’ll worry too much and not allow myself to enjoy the rich world where I’ve found myself this spring.
P.S. I have yet to taste dirt. I will let you know when I do.
14 March 2018
Month Five: I am telling you too much but I don’t care
There are a lot of questions that come with being an American in Spain these days. How did Trump happen? Why do you all have so many school shootings? Does America have good food, and if so, what’s your favorite?
What would you say to those questions?
Initially, I want to bemoan the dangerous polarized fragmented state of our politics, the world I so desperately wanted to leave when I got to Spain.
(If I was vague about it before, here’s all that I wanted to leave: Twitter, Facebook, non-stop badly-written op-eds, the drone of cable news, insider baseball news reporting, overdone exotic takes on Appalachia Trump voters, The Nazi Next Door profiles, conversations that name-drop bloggers who I do not read and television shows I do not watch because I am too tired to try to be “in” on every cultural moment, news alerts, Washington Post stories that tell me what to do if my vacation is “disrupted by terrorism,” NYT stories about how “I quit social media but not really because I tweeted a thousand times in my month hibernation but no, no I wasn’t ‘consuming’ my news through Twitter only commenting on my news, using Twitter to do so,” people complaining about San Francisco, people complaining about work and politics and the state of things in general — is this ironic, yet? Have I been able to escape it? No! No! No! It follows me, or, more sadly, I follow it, I need it, because I have virtually unlimited wifi and a dangerous addiction to being stimulated at all times, which has led to much anxiety and sleepless nights both in college and here, the feeling that I always need to know more, learn more, every single second of my life and if I can’t garner a life-changing lesson from the last 10 minutes I have failed. A low point in Barcelona was one night at 4 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep because I was worrying about something small, like someone who had cancelled plans on me and I went to the kitchen and poured a glass of wine and brought it back to my bed, because this is apparently my adult way of going to sleep, instead of warm milk or something. For the person who cancelled on me the incident was small but for me it was magnified 1,000 times because when you have unstructured free time and spend much of that free time planning how to fill it, every single person matters more than you ever want a stranger to matter, more than you’re ever willing to admit to them — you are giving me purpose this week! You can’t just tell that to someone you met an hour ago, or when you do they slowly stop talking to you… — so cancelled plans collapse into crisis and you wonder what in the world are you going to do when you were staking all of your emotional and intellectual energy on this one person for one day. It’s the feeling of being entirely dependent on other people’s schedules to create your own life, and it’s not their fault that you need them, but it’s not really your fault either, and as a human you want to point a finger, you want to blame someone for your anxiety, but this is the crux of the problem. You’re incredibly lucky and learning so much and the days you’re with people are beautiful, they are days you’re smiling and thinking jesus the sun is shining humankind is inherently good! How is there evil in the world when there are people like these thoughtful Catalan winemakers? They should be in charge. But the days you’re alone after four years of too much introspection in college you are exhausted by your own mind.
That was an incredibly cathartic parenthesis that stole its cadence from the book I’m currently reading, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which talks a lot about media oversaturation in the late 90s early 2000s, and you’ve got to wonder if people like him and DFW wrote like that then, how would they rewrite their stories today?
Maybe I should have tried to make this a footnote.
Sorry if this worries you (mom), but don’t because that’s just the way my mind works, has always worked. I usually don’t write in the style of my mind’s stream of consciousness. Plus I’m moving soon and have more things to do, and anyway most days are full of interesting people and conversations — more on that now.
End parenthesis, back to Catalan wine.)
But I also want to defend the States against the perception that we’re all this way — as one winemaker told me, matter-of-fact, “It’s in your culture. The stress. The anger. The right to everything.” For the sake of going along with the conversation, I usually nod and say yeah, we have a lot problems, like anywhere there are good people and bad people, and anyway in America we have a lot of different people since it’s a big place. The winemakers nod eagerly, this is what they want to hear — yes, everything is big in America! The land. The soda cups. The people, ha ha.
The third question also used to be difficult to answer. I used to trail off into some rambling discussion of food culture in the places I’ve lived, how we don’t have strong food heritage like in Catalonia or the tradition of lingering around the lunch table for several hours before getting back to work, and how the best California food is Mexican. But now I’ve got my answer, and I’m stunned I hadn’t thought of this until this weekend.
On Sunday I was in the town of Rodonyà, in southern Catalonia, for a calçotada, a typical Catalan barbecue. The calçotada (Cal-shuh-tah-dah) is named for its star food, calçots (cal-shots), stringy long onions (or leeks, but they taste the same) grilled over charcoal on outdoor fires. To eat the calçots, you peel the skin with one swipe of the hand, drench the stringy vegetable in orange rosemary sauce, and dangle it above your mouth so you can eat it in one bite. Then you discard the stem and move onto the next, until you’re so full you can’t eat anymore and your hands are black and sticky with the greasy charred calçot bits. That’s round one of the meal. People grill giant slabs of meat and artichokes for rounds two and three — everything also eaten with the hands — and then there’s dessert, usually sweet bread and chocolate, the precise names of which I forget.
The calçots remind me that most meals I consume here include grilled onions, and in fact I can live on grilled onions for the rest of my life because they are so delicious, so sweet and savory at the same time, actually healthy. Question settled forever.
Salvador Batlle, one of my new winemaker friends, invited me on Sunday to the calçotada in his hometown. I met him a few weeks ago at his quiet mountain vineyards in the north of Catalonia, right at the border with France, hundreds of kilometers from his home — I’ll get to that later. My visit with him was yet another surreal-how-did-I-get-here moment. He spent the morning showing me the vineyards, and because it was this first sunny day after weeks or rain and snow across Catalonia, he decided we should go to the ocean. We drove through hills, terraced vine plantings cut into the earth, and the ocean spread out before us, deep blue in the fading light. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been here. Apparently the town, Cap de Creus, inspired some of Dalí’s paintings, because of the way the jagged land juts into the ocean for miles and miles, until Catalonia fades into France.
You can read all about Batlle in something I’m writing for an American magazine about independentista organic winemakers in Catalonia. I don’t know when it’ll come out but maybe in a month. TBD.
That’s been the purpose of the past month and a half, meeting these people for what I’m writing. It’s confusing to explain. I’m a writer, I tell them. But I am also a student on a fellowship learning about how to live. I am trying to see if I can translate something about your life — your peace, your connection to family and place, your love of a good time — into mine, when I get back, whenever I start what the rest of my life is, if that’s something you ever start. Then I tell them all the things I’m worried about at that particular moment.
I don’t need to tell them all this. I can just tell them I am a writer and nothing else will happen. No one asks me for a press pass. No one asks for credentials. But I am secretly also trying to become friends with them, so I need to connect with them personally, need to tell them what I want from this place and maybe they can help me. I also generally tell anyone everything that is on my mind without them asking (see other parentheses), though for concerned journalists out there, don’t worry I *usually* don’t spill my life problems to my sources. Perhaps this is something some of you have noticed and have been too polite to tell me. Perhaps that is something I should work on — filtering myself. But then again I like people who tell me everything too, people who feel comfortable enough with me, who feel they can trust me, can divulge their current pain, the struggles the deal with or have overcome.
This is a big reason why I became fast friends with Batlle. He recounted in length how hard his winemaking experience has been. About five hours into the day he told me about a fight with his dad that led to him to pack up everything and move two hours north. That doesn’t sound like a major change for people like all of us, me and you, email readers, most of whom, like me, live very far away from wherever we may call home. But for Catalan winemakers, whose connection to their land is as important as connection to family, any sort of move is shocking. Most winemakers I’ve met live in the same town where their parents grew up, grandparents grew up, great grandparents grew up. So for Batlle, the move was crushing. He left all of his friends and family behind because he wanted to make wine in his own way, differently than his father’s vision. Fights between fathers and sons over carrying on the family business is rather common in Catalonia, but few move as far as Batlle did.
He and his father are in good terms again, primarily because Batlle has seen a lot of success up north. When I went to the calçotada, Batlle drove me to his family’s old farmhouse, which looks over a valley of vineyards. Years ago, Battle dreamt of making wine from his family’s vineyards and living in the farmhouse. But that was before the fight.
I’ve enjoyed meeting Batlle and people like him, but, alas, because of the demographics of this industry, most of the people I spend time with are men, ages 30 to 45. I enjoy spending time with them. I learn a lot, they are generous with their time, and they all treat me very respectfully. I’ve never felt uncomfortable around them. But I’ve noticed in myself a terrible tendency to undermine my credibility in the presence of older men, here and in the U.S. Even if you’re a year older than me — in fact, even if you’re a year younger than me — I talk down my skills, my ability to speak Spanish, my understanding of wine. Yes, yes you are right! Of course you are right. You are a man. I am just some young California girl (this part of my identity is important here) who’s writing about wine in Spain, just living my life and trying to find myself and learn Spanish, which is really not that good right now.
That is not who I am. I am a Harvard graduate who edited one of the best college newspapers in the country and has written front-page stories for two of the nation’s top-circulation newspapers. I was one of some 100 Harvard seniors competing for this fellowship. I am a 22-year-old living on my own in a foreign country and am conversationally fluent in the language 5 months in, with a technical winemaking vocabulary that I can’t match in English. It is uncomfortable to write all of that but I am because I need to remember these things, always.
My primary goal for the rest of the year is to stop saying stupid things like I’m just some girl living my life, or that’s my fellowship is a strange thing I’m doing in my year after college. I’m learning in the most real way possible — by meeting strangers, developing relationships, embedding myself in their world. I’m writing thousands of words, most of which no one but me has read. This is a time that will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I’m doing what I can to take advantage of it.
I’m grateful for the women my age in the U.S. who’ve had great conversations with me about self-confidence, MeToo, and how we’re often conditioned to accommodate others and diminish our accomplishments in the process. I’m thankful for the women I’ve met in Spain, who believe in me and my project/goals, who are passionate about their own work and are incredibly successful despite the lack of women in the wine world.
Much of what happens here I chalk up to coincidence, but in reality it’s usually because of the leg work I’m doing to learn as much about this niche wine world as possible. For example: At a wine class a few months ago I met a 27-year-old woman studying to be a sommelier. Her name is Bea and she lives just outside of Barcelona. She and I talked for more than an hour then. The other day, I saw her at a conference about the connections between neuroscience and wine consumption, and we ended up spending the whole day together, learning about science and talking about wine and life. At the end of the day we ate at a bottomless sushi buffet. I didn’t know I needed bottomless sushi but I did. I loved watching her talk to stuffy old men winemakers, asking complicated questions about barrel aging and soil and grape varieties.
I say it is not coincidence that I saw her and we became friends because I’ve held a competition with myself the past two months: How quickly can I become an insider in the world of Catalan organic wine? I have probably met 50 winemakers and know most of the sommeliers at three organic wine bars here, as well as a half dozen importers and one New Zealand winemaker/teacher, who I helped in his bodega a week ago in exchange for a couple of bottles of rosé. Numbers don’t matter; the relationships do. I’m not really counting. But still, I think I’m doing pretty well at my challenge.
After a month of many men winemakers, many wine tastings, many train trips across Catalonia and a bus trip back to La Mancha to help Carmen with la poda, I am very excited to be moving up north in a few weeks. I’m living in a town near the French border (but still in Spain), helping a family plant a new vineyard and with la poda en verde (May pruning). Like in Carmen’s case, the lead winemaker is a super cool woman, but unlike Carmen she is very independentista. In fact, she’s going to a wine fair in “northern Catalonia” (ie southern Catalan-speaking France) next month that celebrates Catalan wine.
To the three of you who are taking off work and committing to visit me in Barcelona in the next seven months: I will be in this general area, but you probably won’t have a free place to stay. I am sorry. But if you read my long parentheses you know it is for my own good that I move to the vineyard. We’ll have a grand old time on our jaunt through Catalan hostels.
In addition to the wine history identity article I’m writing for the mag, I also have finally figured out the longer thing I’m writing about my time here. I am not going to tell you what that is, though, until I have written 20,000 words, an abritary thesis-like number that at least makes me feel serious about what I’m doing. We’re at 6,000 (plus maybe some 10k in terrible draft that I will never use so those don’t count). Keeping you on your toes, faithful email readers.
I could write so much about all that’s happened here, my stress over the number of books I have accumulated and what to do with them, the fun intense conversations I’ve had about wine identity history language, and plants, since everyone here loves plants. But I’ve been writing a lot these days, with the long thing, the Rockefeller mid-year report about what I’m experiencing, the article, all of my small daily observations, and thus, I am again experiencing reflection fatigue.
If you have any interest in my mid report, let me know and I’ll send a copy. I have to write it by April 1, and I’m going to Paris next week, then moving. Relishing deadline writing once more.
Thanks for staying with me, folks. You give me purpose!
8 February 2018
Month Four: Everything you ever wanted to know about Catalan wine (really)
The train from Barcelona to Mora La Nova, in the province of Tarragona, speeds first along the Mediterranean coast, then plunges sharply inland, deep into forested hills, winding toward the rugged blue mountains that enclose the valley of Terra Alta.
The bus from Girona to Calonge cuts through verdant plains dotted with crumbling stone houses, and then crawls along the cliffs overlooking the Costa Brava.
The drive from Garraf to Penedès hugs the sea before veering inward toward the vast brown flatland lying in the shadow of Montserrat, the formidable mountain range that looms over this famous wine-producing region.
This is the diverse landscape of Catalonia, which I traverse a few times a week to learn about the region’s wine.
In the past month, I’ve traveled to three of the region’s four provinces and stayed in about a dozen towns to see bodegas and meet winemakers. I have created for myself a writing project related to identity, memory, history, and land. In other words, I hang out with winemakers and drink a lot of wine while we talk about their town and Catalan independence. (We talk about the wine, too, with a level of technical detail I did not realize existed, until this month.)
Many of the small family winemakers I meet are fiercely independentista, but their local loyalties are even stronger than their loyalty to Catalonia. The soil in their town is the greatest in all of Spain; their chefs make the best calçots (a type of stringy scallion eaten by dipping the head back and avoiding the drip of pepper sauce on the face); their wine is better than anywhere else in Catalonia.
“My farm is the best, best, best,” a winemaker in Priorat, a mountainous region known for wines made from the indigenous Garnacha grape, told me Wednesday. “Thanks to our grandfather… Thanks to the slate-based soil, thanks to the climate.”
Spaniards from other parts of the country warned me that Catalans, like all stereotypical people of the world’s North, are closed off and cold. Catalans themselves even tell me the people in their town are aloof. (Though many of them also tend to describe people from the region as breezy and open and wholly Mediterranean.)
I am now deeply skeptical of generalizations like this, given my experience with the Catalans. I have been fortunate this month to meet generous people, who are eager to share with me their homes, their histories, their wines.
Here are a few:
In Corbera d’Ebre, Francesc Ferré, the young winemaker behind Celler Frisach, spent seven hours when he could have been pruning his vineyards driving me through the hills of Terra Alta. His hometown was the site of a major Civil War battle in 1938. The Falangists were closing in on the port city of Valencia, south of Catalonia, in order to cut off crucial resources to the Republican capital in Madrid. The Republicans thought they could distract the Falangists by waging battle in the isolated Corbera d’Ebre to the north, but instead, 115 days later, the city was demolished, its residents displaced to the valley below. The battle at the Ebro River was one of the bloodiest of the war, and one of the most famous for its scores of foreign fighters from the International Brigade.
During our trek across the valley, Francesc showed me the beautiful decaying old city, now uninhabited, and Republican trenches on a hill overlooking the landscape. Then we visited a crumbling lookout tower, a 2,000-year old olive tree, and at last, his vineyards, where, while plowing (sometimes barefoot, because the soil is so soft), he has found pieces of shrapnel.
He makes the wine, he says, in homage to the people who lost their homes and livelihoods in the battle. This is, after all, recent history, a history that some residents actually lived through. Francesc grew up in the shadow of the crumbling old city. His painted green handprint, along with dozens of others from children in the 1990s, is embedded in a heritage wall commissioned by the town, above a poem that instructs the children to carry on the legacy of their grandparents.
Two-hundred-and-eighty kilometers to the north, in Calonge, a small town near Girona, Montse Molla showed me the cellar underneath the house where she, her parents, and her husband and children reside. Her family has made wine since the 1300s in that same bodega — save a brief period during the Civil War when the family had to flee anarchists, who sought to burn down estates and churches across Catalonia. Montse, the first female winemaker in her town, primarily sells to locals, who buy wines by the barrel every March. Her wines, a distributor told me, are the definition of “natural.” Every barrel is different — sometimes she doesn’t even know which grapes are in which, because her vineyards are so old and mixed together — and thus the wines are ephemeral, their particular flavor and sensation lasting only as long as the bottle. Picking up a dusty bottle from who knows when, Montse grinned and told me the wine reminded her of her grandfather.
Earlier in January, Argentine-Catalan sommelier Nuria Renom brought me and a friend to her bodega in the heart of Penedès, where we loaded bottles of ancestral wine (sparkling wine that undergoes two fermentations, one inside the bottle) into her car to drive to her house. The house used to be a grainery in the 12th century, and it sits in the cliffs of Garraf, in a natural park that overlooks the Mediterranean. Nuria stores her wine in every nook of the house — in her clothing drawers, under the kitchen table, on the bookshelf. She doesn’t make much, only a few thousand bottles a year, from a small vineyard closeby.
We visited on a sunny day, and Nuria was clearly so happy to be outside, wandering through her vineyard and petting her horses with a glass of sparkling wine in hand. When we left, she gifted both of us bottles of wine made from the indigenous Macabeu grape, and an egg, from her chickens.
I continue to be amazed that people let me into their homes, spend hours with me, and give me their wine, all while asking very few questions. I say I am a writer interested in the relationships between identity and regional wine, and want to see how people tend to their land. The winemakers are grateful to receive me (Francesc, for example, repeatedly told me my visit was “ilusionante,” which means some mix of exciting and honorable). When I show up at their doors, I am initially wary they’ll look at me and see that I am just some recent college grad who knows nothing about wine. But they’re genuinely thrilled to meet a foreigner who respects their work, especially someone so young, given that there does not exist much of a culture of drinking wine among young people in Spain.
After about a month living here, I have developed a love for wine, thanks in no small part to the people I am meeting. I am surprised. A year ago when I proposed the wine project (albeit based in the south), I wrote a proposal I thought would have the greatest chance of success in getting me to Spain, not a project I would actually be invested in. My project proposal was the result of hours of anxious googling, deep into the morning one night after making The Crimson (haven’t thought about doing that in a while..). I thought I’d just get to Spain and find something more useful to do with my time.
Wine to me was frivolous, an object of luxury. It was an object of power. An object meant to exclude people who did not understand how to talk about it (and people who could not pay for it). If I didn’t taste “notes of apple” or “smoked meat” in my wine, I obviously was doing something wrong.
It is true, wine can be a luxury item and an object wielded to demonstrate power. Single palates can have immense influence over the wine market, as I have learned. Take Robert Parker, a once-random kitschy sort of man living in the middle of nowhere Maryland. During the 80s, his wine guides ranking vintages (the word for a particular harvest) on a scale from 50 to 100 saw immense success. His preference for dense, heavy, sweet wine literally changed the world’s palate.
Have you ever asked yourself why you like sugary white wine from Napa Valley or Australia? Maybe thank Robert Parker. Maybe thank marketing. (If you have an interest in the rise of mass-produced wine, I recommend the documentary Mondo Vino, by American expatriate filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter. The movie criticizes Napa Valley and wine consultants’ industrialization of the wine market. I also recommend his book, Liquid Memory, which is a very earnest and nostalgic homage to the French-originating word terroir.)
But this is all big evil capitalist industrial complex wine. I am living in the beautiful, simple, niche world of ecological Catalan wine. Vignerons make their wine in their garages. They compost. They invite you into their houses for a glass and keep you there for hours, telling you stories about their grandparents who made wine in the house and the midday snacks of wine-soaked bread with sugar they ate when they were kids. They drive you for hours through the hilly, terraced landscapes of Priorat and Terra Alta, give you bottles of wine to try at home, give you books to read about the paisaje of Catalonia. They apologize for the dog running through the yard and the kids playing inside, but they are women who wanted to have families and careers and so they put the business in the house. They give the neighbors who can’t afford normal prices heavily discounted wine — one euro a bottle — so that enjoyment isn’t limited to the people who keep wine refrigerators in their living rooms.
And they will all tell you: You can love the sugary, sticky, dense, industrial wine. That’s the beautiful thing about wine, they say. Tastes are always subjective. We taste only what we taste. The best wines make us feel something, an emotion perhaps. The most important factor in developing a taste is a simple dichotomy: good or not good. I will drink another glass, or I will stop.
Though their vision of the wine world is democratic, it is still exclusive. These winemakers have been generous to teach me the basics, but initially it was difficult to get people to take me seriously when I didn’t knowing what sorts of questions to ask. There is a specific language to wine, aside from the silly “floral notes in the nose and mouth” garbage, that one must learn in order to be anything more than a casual consumer. There are the scientific processes to making wine and the specific fermentation and aging techniques vignerons use to make their wine unique, processes that are often linked to how the winemakers think about their identities. Some of these techniques, like the double fermentation in the bottle, are very old, and thus deemed traditional Catalan. Other techniques, like biodynamic farming, are relatively new, and thus the Catalans are also innovators. Such is the image they like to project — innovating, progressive Mediterranean people who also know where they come from.
(One also learns to question the meaning of ecological, natural, and biodynamic wine labels. In theory, ecological wine is produced with grapes grown without pesticides, natural wine has no added sulfites and is also ecological, and biodynamic is a style of farming that follows the lunar cycles. Some cynical folks, like the president of the Domain of Origin Catalunya — the guy who regulates all wines that want to officially say their place of origin is Catalonia —believes these words are just marketing. If you eat meat, he says, your philosophy can’t be biodynamism. I find this type of reasoning — either you’re 100 percent or you’re a fake —flawed. But it does help to visit the vineyards, spend a while taking to the winemakers, to see if they really practice what they preach in this trendy wine movement.)
I am learning through listening. People can talk for hours about the soil (clay, chalk, slate, granite) the type of planting (terraced, grown directly on the slope) the winds, the proximity of the ocean. I have learned that earlier harvests make wine more acidic and higher altitude gives wine greater freshness. Later harvests give wine more tannins, compounds that make your mouth feel dry. Droughts, like the one Spain has suffered for three years, result in smaller yields and smaller grapes, which are more highly concentrated in sugar, making sweeter wine. Who knew?
Beyond the technical aspects of winemaking, I am most interested in learning about the history and culture of the winemakers, as well as the development of the regions where they work. There are 11 distinct Dominaciones de Origen in Catalonia (with the Catalunya DO as an umbrella), and for good reason. These 11 regions are geographically and culturally distinct, and want to present their wines as such. The Terra Alta DO, for example, is mountainous and isolated, many of its people still carrying trauma from the Battle of the Ebro. The hilly Priorat DO is famous thanks to a group of French people who came to the impoverished region in the 1980s in order to make wines in their native style, thus developing the most expensive wines in Spain. Today, though, a group of Priorat winemakers is pushing back against the French influence and starting to experiment in making wines the old fashioned way, with the native Garnacha grape used by monks hundreds of years ago.
It’s easy to get these winemakers to wax poetic about their work (can we call it an art? I’m sure this thinkpiece exists). Take Amós Bañeres, a pharmacist-turned-winemaker in Penedès who showed me around his vineyards today, with his dog Moira. Individual wines reflect the personality of the maker in some way, he told me. (I immediately thought about Nuria, whose wines are bright and fizzy. If there were ever a fizzy person, she’d be it.) But more important than the individual wine and winemaker, he said, is the place where it comes from. The legacy and style of region. The collective. The sum as greater than its parts.
“In the end, we are all going to die,” he said. “Wine is so much greater than all of us.”
Talk about deep.
It’s rewarding to learn all this about wine because with knowledge comes a feeling of power. I have a vague pitch for something I’m writing about the independentista winemakers and the way they connect their wine to their identity, but sometimes it’s nice just to know things without trying to package them into a finished product. Who knows when my niche Catalan wine wisdom will come in handy one day? As one friend recently told me, I will be an excellent dinner party guest.
As my wine knowledge grows, so does my Spanish. Fluency is a messy thing, difficult to define. I read somewhere that you can call yourself fluent in a language when you can hold an argument with another person — and win. I am far from winning arguments in Spanish, let alone in English. But after having spent many 10-hour days speaking only Spanish, I can pretty well hold my own in the language.
(I still have difficulty with the past subjunctive, but I keep putting off studying it because I am instead resolving to have no regrets, and therefore no need to use the tense…)
I cannot tell you how much this means to me, this ability to connect with people in a language that is not my own. It’s the feeling of being human. Before, when trying to report in LA or Boston in Spanish, I struggled to ask questions, and struggled to decipher answers. When I was reporting in Sevilla and Barcelona for the Catalan separatism stories, I had to pre-write all of my questions in order to feel confident talking. Now conversations are fluid, natural, and not just about politics. I can get jokes. I can tell stories. I still have a way to go but finally, after a decade of studying this language, I am no longer terrified to call someone on the phone.
Alas, there is Catalan, which is the language of the street in most towns here. If I were to stay longer than a year, I would make a serious effort to learn, but the likelihood I stay beyond my allotted fellowship time is low. Then again, who knows what the year could bring?
Back to wine. The last thing I wish to impart on you about this fun drink is a note about its spiritual and religious history. When the Romans made wine here, it was often drunk in order to embody the spirit of Dionysus, god of the vine. Drinking wine brought humans closer to heavenly truth. Much later, Carthusian monks brought a more modern wine cultivation to Catalonia from France. Monks played a significant role in the development of vineyards across France and the Iberian peninsula, and, of course, wine drunk by Christians in the Middle Ages represented the blood of Christ. Another way of getting closer to heavenly truth. (More practically, wine also helped purify contaminated water.)
Writers and wine historians tend to poke fun at the notion of transcending the human realm when drinking wine. To those who were not aware: Wine is alcohol. Drink enough of it, and sure, you’ll feel something otherworldly. Wine, writes critic Paul Lukacs, “offered mortal men and women temporary respite from the burdens and demands of urban life.” You could also make that the tagline of my fellowship year.
As Francesc told me the other day, “the moment humans gained consciousness we were trying to lose it.”
And as much as my winemaking friends love to analyze their wine, the soil, the history, they generally have one, simple goal: make you finish the bottle.
With that, I sign off on month four(!). The week that awaits is particularly fun. On Monday, there is a natural wine festival here in Barcelona, where practically everyone I have met and loved on my strange Spanish journey — including my Castilla La Mancha wine family — will gather to sell and compare, and most importantly, fiesta. I’m supposedly volunteering at this festival, so I think it’s fair to say I’m “in” with the natural wine folks of Catalonia.
After Monday, I return to La Mancha for a couple of weeks to help prune wine family’s vineyard, and then back to Catalonia to do more of all this. For once, I am trying to stop planning everything exhaustively and just take things as they come. Life is more exciting that way.
9 January 2018
Month Three: Stories from Catalonia, and waiting
Sunday morning I woke up early, thinking I’d either go to the vineyard to prune or empty wine barrels in the bodega. But it was raining. The car couldn’t drive through the mud in the vineyard. At the bodega, Carmen and Luis would need to work inside, where space is tight, leaving little room for the work I was to do.
So I spent the day in the quiet flat in Torrijos, reading about Barcelona, where I will move on the fifteenth of this month.
I found a 1961 New Yorker Letter from Catalonia, written by Scottish poet Alastair Reid. The narrative through line — the point, really — of the dispatch is unclear. It’s at times a history of Catalonia, at others a history of the Franco dictatorship, which in 1961 had 14 years left, and sometimes a commentary on several Catalan artists. But Reid captured emotional and political realities of the region that, to me, are still potent today.
He wrote that Catalans thought of themselves as exceptionally productive and European; Catalan nationalists engaged in a sort of myth making that led some to believe Christopher Columbus was born in Catalonia, with the name Juan Colom; Spaniards were reticent to talk about the civil war 20 years after the fact and “memory is too cruel, too savage, too crippling, too shameful, too dangerous to be revived” — producing a “curious hush” in literature on the war.
He was enchanted with Barcelona. An artist friend cast Spain’s capital, Madrid, as an overly “theoretical” city, while Barcelona had a “physical tingle” to it, a kind of tangible energy born from its history and culture and its setting. Perhaps my favorite line in the dispatch details modernist architect Antoni Gaudi’s belief that the sun reflected off the Mediterranean is the only proper lighting to showcase architecture, thus making Barcelona an ideal place to make art. (This school of thought is apparently called Mediterranismo.)
The images and feelings Reid associated with Catalonia explain why I’m moving there. I have now stayed about two weeks total in the city, for two reporting assignments and also to spend time with a college friend. There is an excitement in Barcelona I haven’t felt elsewhere in Spain, due, primarily, to this never-ending secessionist conflict. Perhaps excitement isn’t the right word, since many people are weary of it all, of all the voting and debating and feuds with neighbors and family. But there’s a sense that the course of everyday life is more charged than normal, with these questions of territory and democracy and identity always hovering in the background.
The views in Barcelona, from the tops of green hills or a fortress overlooking the sea, are stunning, too.
I was so in agreement with Reid that I copied some of his lines down into my notebook, feeling inspired by our common appreciation for this city. It was disappointing, then, to learn he made up a lot of the material for his Catalonia dispatches.
As it turns out, Reid compiled much of his reporting to conjure up the perfect scene. For example, he attributed quotes from one taxi driver to another, because he liked the setting of the second drive better. He also fabricated an entire conversation, which took place in a made-up bar.
This is how he attempted to write about the “larger reality” of Catalonia, according to a 1984 NYT story on the fabrications.
“I was reporting on the mood of the country,” Reid said in his defense. In fact, he had admitted to his fabrications without prompting. He was proud of “blurring the line” between fact and fiction. As a journalist.
The words he used to defend his lying sound eerily similar to the words I use to describe my new project. I want to talk to the people, “repor[t] on the mood,” capture the energy and exhaustion in the wake of a surreal election that settled very few questions.
I don’t think I need to write fiction, however.
If anything, Reid’s fabrications, his blending of fact and fiction to write a broader story about Catalonia and Spain, seem similar to what pro and anti independence Catalans do on a daily basis. They bend history to fit their narratives.
They argue constantly about what happened during the Oct. 1 independence referendum — was there police brutality? (Yes, but the next question: how widespread?) Pro-independence Catalans boast about the region’s autonomy in the Middle Ages, while in reality, Catalonia has always been part of someone else’s empire. Anti-independence Catalans talk of fear of speaking Spanish, of castigation for their beliefs, while their secessionist family and friends insist that there is nothing hostile about the independence movement.
I am interested in the stories Catalans of all backgrounds tell about themselves. I am interested in the national narrative-making that goes on in Catalonia, from political discourse to what people talk about, day to day.
What do I do with that interest? To be honest, I am not really sure. I now know a pro-independence winemaker in Sitges, a coastal town just outside of Barcelona. Last month, my friend and I visited the winery, which dates back to the 1500s and housed family members fleeing from Franco during the civil war. I am trying to work on another winery, to learn about cava production, and maybe a vermut bar whose owner collects old Barcelona maps. (I, too, am surprised at myself for trying to follow through with the wine thing.)
There’s also a “memory association” in Barcelona that works to put up art and restore or memorialize buildings, to remember what happened there. In Barcelona’s case, the group is working on a few projects about jails during the dictatorship. I mostly just want to talk to people. Finding the right people is the hard part.
I am ready to move. I know this much.
The past month — my third here, in Spain — has been difficult at times. I haven’t felt like I’ve started much of any project here, and I am in a constant state of anxious waiting. I still feel like a traveler, waiting to find my place to stay. My phone was stolen. My Spanish continues to improve, but at a sluggish pace. I developed a painful cough from the stress I felt while reporting on the Catalan elections — stress that came as a surprise to me, until I realized I had no desire to continue writing daily news stories.
(A brief primer for the unaware: pro-independence groups won the slight majority in parliament, but their two leading contenders for president are either in jail or self-imposed exile, making it impossible for them to serve. I have written a version of that sentence many times now, and am growing tired of it. Things, in other words, are close to where they started a few months ago, and all negotiating remains at a standstill.)
Reporting on the Catalonia elections reminded me why I chose to do this fellowship instead of trying to get a journalism job right out of college. The news on Catalonia is frenetic and piecemeal. It is complicated politics. The writing is formulaic. Everything I wrote about was what everyone else was writing about. It is necessary work (though perhaps a Catalonia dispatch from the LAT isn’t the most urgent story), but work I didn’t want to do this year, for reasons of exhaustion and my waning attention span, and wanting, simply, to write something longer.
Still, the reporting gave me a few good stories, insights that help me understand the people in Barcelona. I have found neighborhood political divisions particularly fascinating. I met three women in line to vote on the morning of Dec 21., all of whom were neighbors in the pro-independence Gracia barrio but held different political views. One was a former communist who believed Catalonia to be a republic; one wanted to remain part of Spain, but was happy to live peacefully with her pro-independence neighbors; and the final felt the neighborhood was in conflict, with a vocal secessionist majority stifling people like her, who wanted nothing to do with independence. (Head north from Gracia, to the Nous Barris district, and you’ll see Spanish flags everywhere. That neighborhood is firmly unionist.)
These are the stories I am happy to absorb, slowly, for the next nine months.
I returned to Torrijos after reporting, for the holidays. I realize now, when I am with people, doing anything besides waiting for the next thing, I am happy. These have been three weeks of long family dinners, cooking, wine, gifts. I’ve helped the family in the bodega. I cleaned up gooey purple lees (the yeast residue in wine) from depositories. I bottled several hundred bottles, and only once spilled red wine all over my pants. Hopefully this week, Carmen and I will return to the vineyard to begin pruning. We also need to spray a mixture of incense and gold over the vineyard — an offering to the Reyes Magos, the kings who brought gifts to baby Jesus, in the hopes of a good harvest this fall.
Still, many days pass when when my help is not needed and I am asked to stay home. I feel I am not giving back as much as I am receiving from the family. I am still idle and still anxious and entirely dependent on them for work. I spend days reading, writing, walking around the town. When I walk alone to the outskirts of town some chilly afternoons, I feel like every passerby must know I’m not from there, so I rush to turn corners, hurry back quickly.
I want to feel useful, but most days I am not.
I have also noticed something with my Spanish comprehension that encapsulates most of the anxiety I feel here. I often struggle with the imperfect subjunctive form, meaning that I am trying to speak about past desires, or, more often, regrets. This is a tense I rarely used in school, so it doesn’t come naturally to me, but the thoughts — the regrets — do. Usually, I find myself trying to say something like: I wish I had done this, or I wish I had been there. I wish I had studied Spanish harder in college. I wish I had thought more about my Rockefeller year before I showed up, unprepared, in Spain. I wish, when applying for this fellowship in October 2016, I had actually envisioned myself doing something I proposed; maybe then I would have avoided this uncertainty, this constant anxiety about what I am and am not doing here.
You see, when you have the chance to do practically anything you want, practically anywhere in the world, the possibilities that seem limitless are also debilitating. I have a free year. A full, unfettered year, in a foreign country, devoid of the pressures of work or study. For the first time in my life, I have time.
I have freedom, and with that freedom I chose to do this?
My initial project was to learn how to make and serve sherry wine in Jerez de la Frontera, in Andalucía. Then I tried sherry for the first time about a year ago and did not like it much. Then I thought that spending a year learning about wine was a superfluous thing to do, and I should find a way to help the world. Then I got to Spain without a plan and realized I had no desire to be in Andalucía. This was a region I thought I had a strong emotional attachment to, because there three years ago I developed my friendship with Haley Rue through constant correspondence.
Turns out, as a friend wrote to me recently, places don’t hold up to your memories of them. What matters isn’t so much the place but what you did there and how you felt there.
So I left Andalucía. Where I am now, near Madrid, feels much the same. A place — my first foreign city — that dazzled me as an 18-year-old, but now, at 22, makes me weary.
I feel unsettled and uncertain, guilty about everything. Why do I not have a project that helps other people? Why am I not outside more? Why am I moving to one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities when I could be building a boat or working on a ranch or something? Why, with all this free time I have, am I not already well-versed in French philosophy and American labor history and all the things I should have tried harder at in college? Why am I not in shape?
A friend sent me an essay about Susan Sontag that remarked she felt “slung between aesthetics and politics, beauty and justice.” That all sounds a bit dramatic for this stage of my life, but it resonates. I want to do everything at once, and in agonizing over all I can’t do, I do nothing, and my head hurts.
As I said in the first email three months ago, every day I am here I am learning something. In less than a week, I will start my life in the city where I will remain — I hope — for nine more months.
For now, I’ll spend my last few days in Torrijos reading and talking, since the rain keeps us from working in the vineyard. For this, I am sorry: My timing here was strange because there hasn’t been much vineyard work to do, and the strenuous pruning season begins in a few weeks. Perhaps I will stay a few extra days to help, or perhaps I’ll return next month or in March, when work is definite. But soon, I should leave.
For now, I am grateful to pass the time with this family who has given me a home.
7 December 2017
Month Two: Wine in La Mancha
(For the new adds — welcome to month two of my life in Spain.)
On a Friday night around 11 p.m. I was standing in the cold with three middle-aged women, who were smoking and drinking wine and talking about elementary school. We were outside a bar in the tiny town of Santa Olalla, population 2,000 or so, the place where the three women grew up and where they all still live, a place whose residents still talk about the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, a place, like the rest of Spain, suffering from a yearlong drought. This place, set among miles of brown and green and black-burnt plains, is the heart of Castilla La Mancha, land of Cervantes’s Don Quijote.
One of the women, Mercedes, told me about her old neighbor Gregorio Sanchez, a famous Spanish bullfighter. She, like everyone else in town, grew up admiring him and watching him fight in the local bullring. Only later did she start to question the ethics of the sport, and, as she tells it, the morality of the spectators who “applaud the torture of the bull.” She started posting Facebook statuses criticizing bullfighting and soon drew the attention of a young corrida fan who told her she didn’t understand the art of bullfighting. They met in person, talked, and left, each unconvinced. Later, he sent her a book, “El arte de birlibirloque,” written by a poet. While she remains opposed to the spectacle of bullfighting, she does admit the book convinced her there is something admirable about the “art.”
She recounted to me her favorite part of the book — a lesson, she said, that transcends bullfighting. There are two types of bullfighters. The first, the cowardly, rushes at the bull, ready for a confrontation and ready to get the fight over with. The second, the brave, waits for the bull to charge him.
I told myself I wouldn’t write about bulls, because I figured they were a vestige of a cultural past long vanished from Spain, and because there is nothing more commercial and stereotypical about this country, except perhaps flamenco music. But as I talk to older folks here in La Mancha, they often recount their memories of bullfights, and how the sport shaped the society they live in now.
The point of this long anecdote was the hackneyed proverb at the end — that the braver is the one who waits. I won’t say I am particularly brave, but I did wait a month in Granada so I could end up here, in La Mancha. As you know from the last email, I was not particularly satisfied with my time in Granada. But the difference of a month, with this change that I made, has been astounding.
This is the story of a surreal month.
I am living in a town called Torrijos, about 20 minutes outside of Toledo and an hour from Madrid. I am living with a family that makes biodynamic wine, that is, wine without sulfates or chemicals. Their operation is relatively small and young. They have no employees — just their kids. They started growing grapes in 2012, selling in 2015, under the label Uva de Vida, Grape of Life.
I call them my wine family. They are Carmen and Luis, the matriarch and patriarch, then Luis Jr, 14, and Elena, 16, who live in the flat and go to school. There is also Andrea, 23, and Mario, 21, who study in Madrid. Gloria is the maternal grandmother — she lives in Toledo, and gave me four Spanish history books. Mariano is a paternal grandfather. Another Gloria is an aunt, Javi is an uncle, Mariano is a cousin, as is Daniela. There are many more.
I have met them all in the past month, at five-hour long lunches of shrimps and meat and fish and wine; at dinners of jamón serrano and Manchego cheese and olives and tomatoes; at birthday celebrations and nights wandering around Madrid; at a wine fair in Toledo. They have let me into their homes, given me books to read, discussed their political opinions, shown me how to properly drink wine. They all seem fascinated by California walnuts (I was not aware we are known internationally for these) and surfing, the only pieces of California they can grasp, since just one of them has visited. I reluctantly tell them I cannot surf. None of them speaks English.
I spend most of my days with Carmen. She had cancer a little more than a decade ago. She cannot forget the sadness she felt then, how weak she was. When she was better, she decided to rid her life of chemicals, clean her diet, and start a family business — the winery.
The wine she makes is the perfect symbol for her life mottos, her mantras. The earth gives and we receive, she says often. Everyone is made up of the land where they are from. Since her wine doesn’t have any chemicals, its flavor depends on the quality of the harvest and the events of the year. The wine, she says, tells the story of drought, of rain, of wind or smoke.
Carmen follows a lunar calendar to choose dates when she should bottle wine or prune the vineyard, which is planted between olive groves in the hills outside of Santa Olalla. She puts bull horns in the vineyard soil and lets neighboring sheep wander through the hills. In the bodega, where the family makes and stores their wine, classical music is always playing so that the “vibrations” help evolve the fermenting wine. Positive messages are written in chalk on the barrels and depositories — feel your soul, listen to your heart. Sometimes Carmen brings out a Tibetan bowl for more vibrations.
I am only just starting to learn about wine, but I know this much: Their wine is good. We drink it on Friday nights with a group of 45-year-old friends at the bar in Santa Olalla, where Carmen and Luis bring bottles of wine they’ve made or gotten from biodynamic wine friends at festivals around the world, and we get local tapas and desserts. We stay here until 2a.m. Their wine is red and not too sweet and sometimes smells like apples. I don’t have a great vocabulary to describe wine, besides whether I like it or not, but Carmen tells me that’s all I need, and that the wine experience is personal and all in our heads. So if I taste “leather” or “wood” or “plums” or what have you, then that is what the wine is for me. Most of the words on wine labels are just for marketing, anyway. They are made up. Wine is good, or not good.
For the first time in my life, I am enjoying — really savoring — the experience of a meal. I’m used to eating quickly, on the go, at my desk, or forgetting to eat altogether. I am too busy to make healthy food. I instead fill myself with cups of tea and coffee and pieces of bread. (Or, to my later regret, chocolate bars.)
Here, lunch is at 2 p.m. and lasts for hours. Here, the pairing of soup and entree, of wine or beer, is crucial. Men come home from work to lunch, kids come home from school. This is the moment of gathering and conversation. Every part of lunch — from the food to the drinks to the discussion — is deliberate, meaningful.
When Carmen and I do the dishes together after lunch, we talk about food and history and often about women. Even though Carmen is an entrepreneur who survived cancer and raised four kids, she still feels at times trapped in the house, like many of her friends in this small town where she grew up, cooking and cleaning and ironing. She remembers her grandfather who made his children work in the fields while he went to the bullfights, after which his wife made big meals and scrubbed his feet so he could relax. Things aren’t that bad now, Carmen acknowledges, but most women her age are still expected to stay at home.
(On the note of gender, women, expectations, and harassment, it has been fascinating watching the MeToo movement unfold from afar and listening to conversations about assault here in Spain. There’s a big and very public court case here, in which a young woman alleges five men raped her at the Running of the Bulls festival two summers ago. When discussing the case, the older men I spend my time with tend to define to the women what feminism is, and that a young woman wearing a mini skirt should have known better than to go out to a party in that kind of outfit. I am simplifying this argument, of course, and am probably missing some nuance since I have to decipher all of these conversations in Spanish, but the sentiment is undeniable. Several of my 45-year-old friends also complain that the whole of Spain has been converted into a court, and we are all judges — in this case, in the case of Catalonia. I feel like I am in García Márquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” )
All this in a month. There are moments that feel surreal. Like yesterday morning, when I was sitting atop a 15,000-liter depository of wine, staring at my own face reflected in the depths of dark red. Or the night I went to the sierras with my middle-aged friends and we stood around bright burning luminarias — bonfires kindled by old furniture, meant to release a house’s spirits — eating warm chestnuts and debating whether Spain is still a machista country. Or on my birthday, when we gave a winery tour to a group of hunters from the Canary Islands, and they gifted us seven dead quails in return.
And, of course, any time I remember that a family took in a total stranger — a total stranger who had only googled “family wineries in Spain” and emailed the first few — I am stunned by my luck. How I found a family that has, in a few short weeks, made me one of them, and how much we are learning from one another.
I am also filling my notebook. Everyone tells me their personal history of the dictatorship — Carmen, for example, remembers in grade school having to salute to a plaque outside the church listing the names of dead fascist soldiers. (The names of dead republicans were not there.) The plaque is now gone, the only letters remaining nonsensical. Mercedes still does not know where the bones of her republican grandfather lie; he was taken and killed by the fascists during the war.
They also talk to me about Catalonia. The Spanish favor a type of news program called the tertulia, in which seven or so politicians or experts spend hours debating the politics of the moment. It is endless noise and reminds me of television news in America. (One man, at a restaurant, told me when he turns on the TV each day he sees only Trump and Puigdemont, the Catalonia leader who declared the region independent, and who is now living in Brussels to avoid arrest and wait for fresh regional elections later this month.) The news about Catalonia is always front and center, and usually framed as a loss. Tourism is declining rapidly. Spanish speakers have been castigated on airplanes for speaking Spanish, and not Catalan. There was even a feature about prostitutes being upset about their loss of business in Barcelona.
I read and watch and listen endlessly because I am going to Barcelona in a few weeks to cover the elections, which will decide whether the pro-independence parties will remain in power or not. And then, I want to stay.
I wrote in my Rockefeller application last year that I wanted to slow down. I also wanted to write a story that people would remember. There is a phrase I keep with me, given by the former executive editor of the Associated Press at a dinner last year, in which she bemoaned the noise (ruido, in Spanish) of the endless news cycle, the sound bite updates from the election, our shot attention spans. She challenged journalists to write “the story that sticks.”
With all the noise about Catalonia, all the political commentary and discussion of big-time lawmakers, it is easy to forget that a good percentage of the population actually wants independence. It is difficult to understand how emotional the separatist movement is, how it has divided families. The writing rarely focuses on the normal people, just the big players.
A few days ago, I met with Giles Tremlett, the author of “Ghosts of Spain” and generally thought of as one of the expat experts of Spain, to talk about Catalonia. He wondered how a generation of young separatists, bred to believe the moment of independence was ever so close, will at this climactic moment respond to the election, since it is almost certain Catalonia will not become a separate state. Does the arc of peaceful protesting, with zero gains and a few losses, lead to violence? It seems Madrid won’t bother doing anything with its constitution, won’t legalize independence referendums, won’t give Catalonia any more rights and privileges than they have now. Symbolically, Giles said, Madrid could at least recognize Catalonia is different than the rest of Spain. PM Mariano Rajoy could go to Barcelona and give a speech championing Catalan, celebrating the success of Catalonia’s economy and immigration policies, the while still emphasizing the need for Spanish unity. Separatists could be more respectful of their citizens who want to remain part of the country. But neither side will give. (This is the thesis of NYT reporter Raphael Minder’s book on Catalonia, which was published, impeccably, in September. We have reached a moment of extreme polarization in Spain, after decades of missed opportunities on both sides. December 22, the day after the elections, is a big question mark.)
Giles told me, as I have told myself, to find what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the “deep story,” the story made out of months and months of observation. The story about Catalonia that cuts through the politics, the tit for tat game between Barcelona and Madrid, the story that sticks.
I am lucky that I will always have a place to stay. My wine family is inviting me back here for Christmas and New Year, and I’ll come back at the end of my year to help them with the vendimia — the harvest, and the winemaking.
I realize now I have buried, arguably, my most important news. I have received my foreigner identification card and am here to stay for the year. Legally. As a researcher for the Pablo de Olavide university in Sevilla. Because that is precisely what I am doing with my time here.
Thanks to all for sending me bits and pieces about your lives. It seems most of us have our frustrations about the way life is going, but we are all self-aware that we are 20-somethings who have a lot of waiting and watching and learning and doing before we get to a place that feels fulfilling. And we all tend to have an inherently misanthropic side to us, which certainly doesn’t help. I know I do.
I love hanging out with my 45 year old friends, but am missing people my age. This is your invitation to drop by Spain sometime.
8 November 2017
The email about my life in Spain you never knew you wanted
Hi there, friends.
Meg here, sending a dispatch from Granada, Spain. Some of you gave me your emails so you could keep up to date on my time here. Others did not, but I figured you might be interested in what I am doing, and what I plan to do. I am hoping to send 12 of these email dispatches of my time in Spain, one for each month I am here, in part so we don’t lose touch but also because, for me, this will be a good exercise in continual reflection. I guess I could be journaling more often, but I prefer writing for an audience to writing for myself. I do not like blogs, but I love emailing, as some of you probably know. (FYI, you are all bcc’d, so we don’t start some weird email thread.)
Consider yourself a subscriber to the newsletter about my life in Spain. You cannot unsubscribe. (If you really don’t want to hear from me, I suppose you should let me know.)
I am warning you this is a long and rambling jumble of thoughts. But I wanted to spend some time writing. One of my goals here in Spain is to regain my shot attention span. Maybe this email can help with yours, too.
Y así lo tenemos….
The people in Granada started wearing winter clothes a few weeks ago, when it was still warm out. To me, they looked ridiculous, but everyone was doing it, wearing these scarves and jackets. It was as if they were willing the cold to come.
Maybe they were onto something. This week the temperature dropped. It rained. The Sierra Nevada mountains, which loom over this foothill city, are covered in snow. This has been an unseasonably warm fall, my Spanish teacher told me, but now we are back on track for a normal, frigid winter.
A 30-year-old psychologist told me the other day that “We Spaniards are stubborn people.” He was telling me this because we were talking about the independence movement in the northern region of Catalonia, home to Barcelona. He said Spaniards in his part of the country, Andalucía, in the south, generally cannot fathom why a region would want to separate from Spain. Look at all these, he told me, pointing to the red and yellow Spanish flags hanging from a dozen buildings down the street. The flags are a symbol of national unity. Spaniards here love to hate the northerners, per tradition, he said. They have hated independence-seeking Catalonians since before the Civil War. During the conversation, I wondered if he meant that these Spaniards don’t like change, that they prefer sticking to routine. This would explain the jackets in 80 degree weather, when it was supposed to be cold like any other October.
As I wonder what I am doing here in Spain, I am always eager to pick up these sorts of generalizations about the country’s people. I want to write something eventually, about regional differences and antagonism. But I am wary. These are generalizations, after all. There is a long history of foreigners, mostly British and American, coming to this country to write about its “stern melancholy,” its “noble… severity” (in the words of Washington Irving, who wrote a book about Granada in the 1800s). Hemingway sought out a macho Spain with his tales of bullfighting and the Civil War, which he witnessed as a reporter in the late 1930s. Others went to the war, too — Orwell and Dos Passos and all the other expat men seeking adventure and book material in a liberal Spanish Republic fighting fascism.
(Luckily I am not a male writer.)
In an article last month about international coverage of the Catalonia crisis, Spanish journalist Antonio Muñoz Molina condemned the tendency of foreign reporters to exotify Spain, to perceive it as a fragile democracy haunted by the legacies of a dictatorship that ended 40 years ago. He even chastised one of my favorite journalists, New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson, for calling the Spanish National Guard a “paramilitary” body for its confrontation with Catalonian independistas at their Oct. 1 independence referendum. (It’s clear in the article, though, that Molina is super partisan in favor of unity. It is hard to find singular Spanish voices that are neutral on the topic.)
I am fascinated by the Catalonia crisis, and separatist strains in the Basque Country, a region that was, until recently, tormented by domestic terrorism from a radical nationalist group. I am fascinated by the coastal Galicians, whose language and traditions have stronger ties to the Celtic world than to Spain. But I am wary of these interests, or at least, writing about them. I am wary of portraying these places as “other,” as fascinating only because I am an American and these regions are different and new. But I am not a travel writer and I am not a memoirist, and I am also not important to this country’s story. I can write about Spain without implicating myself in what I write. (For an example of what I mean by all this, see The New Yorker’s “Letter from” section. I recently read Patrick Radden Keefe’s “Where the Bodies are Buried,” about the Troubles and the Irish Republican Army, since so many people here compare Basque nationalists to the IRA. Highly recommend. And Alma Guillermprieto’s 1996 letter from Medellin. JLA also wrote one about the Basque Country in 2001, I think.)
I have been here a month, collecting these facts, and perceptions, of Spain.
I have lived in Granada, mostly. It is a beautiful city. It was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, before the Catholic kings Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the Moors in the late 1400s. That fact is evident in the city’s architecture, from its narrow winding streets and crowded tea shops in the Muslim quarter, called the Albaicin, to the imposing Alhambra fortress perched in the hills. But this is a university town crawling with European students and tourists. There is no industry here. The young people don’t have jobs. They leave for other parts of the country. The older people here work in the jobs they’ve always had. I sense a certain complacency — though, as an Andalucían told me a few weeks ago, I am probably imposing my “American capitalist mentality” about productivity on the south of this country.
I am impatient here, and restless.
I spend much of my time wondering what I am doing in Spain. This has been a long month. Long because I did not intend to be in Granada for a month, but Spanish bureaucracy required me to obtain a residence and wait for a national identification card before I can stay here for a year — legally that is. Circumstance forced me into signing a three month apartment contact (I arrived during the week of Columbus Day, a “national fiesta” in Spain, and all the hostels were full for days). I signed up for a month of Spanish classes, which also keep me here. This is my only commitment, the Spanish classes. Twelve hours a week. Otherwise, I read and write. I go to poetry readings and lectures and language exchanges. I am waiting to be fluent in Spanish. I know it is not that easy. Everything feels like waiting.
Sometimes I am envious of my friends who are starting their careers — all of college felt like waiting to start being a real journalist. I know this is silly. It is hard not to work, though.
Two weeks ago I was tired of waiting. It was a Friday. Catalonia’s president (the country is divided into 17 “autonomous communities,” each with its own leader) Carles Puigdemont declared the region independent, nearly a month after an unauthorized and low turnout independence referendum swung in favor of Catalonian secession. The Spanish central government applied what is called Article 155, and fired the region’s leaders, effectively taking over. There were parties in the streets of Barcelona. There were also protests. Most people seemed confused. What did an “independent Catalonian republic” actually look like? The answer is still unclear (spoiler: Puigdemont has since fled to Brussels and is wanted under an international arrrest warrant, while other cabinet members are in jail.)
I had been toying with heading north to Barcelona, simply to be there at a volatile, and newsworthy, time. The Friday independence declaration was irresistible. I emailed the Los Angeles Times.
The national editor for the LA Times got back to me within an hour and told me to catch the next plane to Barcelona. I would help the reporter on the ground, Molly Hennessy Fiske (former Crimson editor!). I would get to pretend I was a foreign correspondent.
People in Barcelona are unsettled. No one is particularly happy. The future is uncertain. Leadership is in limbo. Some people believe they live in the “Republic of Cataluñia.” Some people liken Spain’s use of Article 155 to repression under the fascist Franco. Everyone here has a Franco story, one Catalonian woman supporting independence told me. Her father had been jailed by Franco, sent to France. During the dictatorship, she could not speak Catalan outside the house. She proudly spelled her name for me in Catalan, for the newspaper.
Everyone here has a strong opinion. Most people I have met outside of Catalonia have a strong opinion, too. You barely need to ask — mention of “referendum,” “independencia,”or “Puigdemont,” and everyone is talking. Pro-unity folks blame region-sponsored media for influencing the international narrative about a repressed Catalonia. They also talk of “brainwashing” and “indoctrination” the region’s schools, which, they claim, teach their students about Catalonian exceptionalism. One man in the south of Spain likened such Catalonian exceptionalism — that Catalonian produce most of the wealth in Spain, that they are harder workers than other Spaniards — to racism.
The conflict has divided families. At a pro-unity rally in Barcelona, which hundreds of thousands of people attended, one woman told me she and her husband did not agree about the future of Catalonia. Her husband was an independentista. She, on the other hand, was at the pro-unity rally, wearing a Spanish flag. Things are not good, she told me. They still lived together, but they did not speak. One teenager at the rally claimed she had been benched on her soccer team for wearing a bracelet with the colors of Spain’s flag. She shrugged. Life could be worse.
I interviewed everyone in Spanish. One man tried to make me do the interview in Catalan. This was terrifying as someone who is paid to get things right. It was also exhausting, having to think in Spanish and check quotes again and again and ask everything twice, three times.
After I returned from Barcelona, the editors approved a pitch of mine, to go to Sevilla, the capital of Andalucía, and write about independence from the perspective of residents of one of the poorest regions in Spain. I spent Halloween here, wandering around at nightfall when I had finished reporting. Costumed children played soccer in the city’s plazas. This might have been my favorite Halloween.
I caught a ride back to Granada the next day with a group of Andalucíans, who pointed out cities and farms along the three hour drive (for my worried mother, there is a secure app for this, tranquila). These are the moments I like best here. When I am learning the place.
This long month is nearing its close. On Monday or Tuesday, I am heading north, just outside of Toledo, to work on a bodega and live with a winemaking family. I am not sure how long I will stay here. Still waiting for my ID card. If I don’t receive it, I have two choices: leave Spain, or live here illegally, and risk being detained on the way out/being banned from Spain for the rest of my life.
I have a vague sense of what I want to do here. I am slowly moving north. Maybe I will work on a winery in each of the three northern regions — Catalonia, Basque Country, and Galicia, where I have heard the people speak like they are singing. They are a melodic people. Maybe I will learn that wine is something that unites all Spaniards, as every region has its own unique style. Maybe I will learn this is yet another point of division. Whose wine is the best? Whose wine is the most Spanish? Does this made-up debate even matter? I am going to find out.
I am feeling reflection fatigue, now. I won’t keep you much longer, you faithful friends who have made it this far. I have no idea what this year will look like. I have no idea what next week will look like.
I do know I have to stop feeling like I am waiting for something better, because I only have a year and every day I am here I am learning. That is the wisdom I have gleaned from this month.
Saludos to my recent graduate friends, trying to figure out how to be working people of the world. I envy you, but I am also thankful to not be working at a desk.
Others — send me an email when you get the chance. I would love to hear from you.
Here is to hoping I won’t face deportation.