Reading Lorca in Pomegranate City

Eat: Ortiguillas del mar (sea anemones) @ Bar Kiki

Before we left for Spain, my husband and I watched the Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown Granada episode over and over. We were itching to just be there already—to just be, really. Free to take it all in. This is the dream, Bourdain says at one point: To find yourself abroad, living indefinitely in the sun-drenched town, where food and wine is always flowing; where the strumming of flamenco will reach you lazily over lunch; where the Alhambra watches over you, wherever you happen roam within the labyrinthine cobblestone streets.

In the courtyards of the Alhambra, a “realization of paradise on earth”
Call it an American inclination to fall in love with European cities, an obsession with fairy-tale-worthy castles, a lark. But I have tried to live the dream of which Bourdain speaks. Late in the summer of 2008, having crammed two suitcases full with really the most ludicrous things to bring across the Atlantic, I found myself in the city of pomegranates. With my own American coffee maker, no less. (This device would, as it turns out, bite the dust as soon as I plugged it in. Duh.) As a recent college graduate, I had been accepted to the Auxiliares de Conversación program and placed randomly in Granada. What luck.

2008. Yup: That’s me on the left. Sorry, Laura.
Love it was: Love at first sight and in all its too-good-to-be-true glory: My skin seemed to hum with Granada; I began to consider how I might redecorate my Andalusian room in a more Andalusian fashion. I learned to drink cortados, tiny cups of smooth espresso with just a touch of milk. I caught the bus to the outskirts of town four days a week and tried to teach fourth graders in their second language, to figure out the conversion of temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit. I became more relaxed, reaching a level of laziness I’d never once allowed myself, having always been a goal-focused and obsessive student. Without course requirements for the first time in my life, I longed to write—or more accurately, to be a writer, to be able to call myself a poet of Granada, to attend the events held at tertulias in utter confidence, to memorize Lorca, to lose myself in the Alhambra.

Instead, I dwindled entire afternoons away, sometimes reading, rarely writing, and more often simply watching bad TV on my over-heating laptop. I was confused by the tradition of siesta and consternated with the city for closing when I most felt inclined to go and “get shit done.” Those days, my love for Granada was young and tempestuous; I regularly had quarrels with her about what had made me fall in love with her in the first place. After all, hadn’t I’d gone gaga for her very insistence on closing during siesta, her willingness to just let us all be? That’s what I had wanted, wasn’t it?: To walk for hours and grind the tips of my heels down to dust, to chat idly over cortados, to listen to a new record in a local bar, to live and live and to permit myself to stay calm in that restfulness.

That year, I spent almost every evening out, socializing, eating free tapas, drinking litros of gin & tonics, climbing up to a mirador in adoration of the Alhambra, lit-up and sparkling against the violet sky. I danced lackadaisically in my recently purchased Arabic-style pants, let my hair grow ever longer and shaggier because I didn’t know how to properly request a certain kind of hair cut in Spanish and because it “worked in Granada, didn’t it?” And even though this was a dream—a fantasy—I managed to build a semblance of a life within it. I developed lifelong friendships with folks equally in love with Granada, the kind of friends you always need, the kind willing to give up an entire year in London or Lille or New York, eager to simply hang out and eat tapas and go out dancing on a lark, in pajamas, even.

When I left Granada—for New York, of all places—it was with a heavy heart, but also with an eagerness to move onward and upward (whatever that means). It’s almost as if I’d considered it her fault I’d been so unproductive. As if Granada had somehow held me back on establishing an ambiguously-conceived Career as a Writer. But now, another degree down and five years of teaching full-time later, I found myself missing her something awful. I wondered how she’d been.

Making our way up through the Albaícin on December 21, 2015.
Bojan and I arrived to Granada on December 20th, when the city was decked out in full Christmas garb. It hit me the way only running into an ex might: She was, impossibly, even more beautiful than I’d remembered. The white-washed Albaicín seemed architectural peace incarnate; the sky intruded with its crisp-aired blue.

La Navidad in Puerta Real
The metro that had been under construction eight years ago was still under construction, and I imagined my former boss playfully assuring me that the Andalusian motto was “Mañana, mañana” (“Tomorrow, tomorrow”… we’ll do it tomorrow).
The next day, we walked up toward that heavenly barrio, and after hours of winding in and out of streets carved into the mountainside, we ended up dining al-fresco at Bar Kiki. We’d be taking our three p.m. comida in a place I remembered only vaguely, that seemed to pop out at us all of the sudden, as if the white square we’d been staring at were a Magic Eye.
Over the next two hours—taking our time, the way the locals do—we had the kind of lunch we’d droolingly anticipated. We sampled a little bit of everything that looked good from the mozárabe-inspired menu, washing it all down with a berry-red wine. We shared paté with a rich, bittersweet orange-and-date glaze alongside the ubiquitous Spanish salad of lettuce and boiled egg, sweet pepper and tomato, biting onion and tuna, all of it doused in olive oil and vinegar.

Pure yum, fried.
And then we tried this^^. The star dish of the day was definitely a plate of fried ortiguillas del mar, or sea anemones. Yes, sea anemones: The image you have in your head of a fluorescent sea critter, the kind that might have been an inspiration for the cartoonists of Monster, Inc.—that’s correct. Inside those tentacled bodies are a briny pulps that taste something like an oyster-kelp conglomerate, absolute perfection when battered and fried.

Ortiguillas del mar, or sea anemone: image via
While we ate, a young Romani boy played tambourine with perhaps his father and an uncle: men with a guitar and voices like the streams that rush and glide down the Alpujarras, alternately rough or gentle. They understood the boy was cute and could earn them extra euros, and their presence seemed par-for-course at Bar Kiki; the clientele was happy for the soundtrack but engrossed in conversation, paying them only a little attention. But as the men’s voices slid in and out of harmony, they lent a full and round and eerie quality to the square, a quality that might be easy to take for granted if you heard it every day, like the light at dawn or the sound of heels clop-clopping down stone streets. But I preferred to imagine that everyone was just as aflutter inside with the music as I was, filled to the brim with a sound that felt like love on verge of disaster, like a day so good you want to push it to its limits, are desperate not to see it end.  

Read: Yerma, by Federico García Lorca, translated by W.S. Merwin

in translation, portrait of FLG by Manuel Ángeles Ortiz, bilingual edition
I read Yerma, Lorca’s 1934 “tragic poem in three acts,” in Spanish, so I found the bilingual student edition useful. This edition was translated and annotated meticulously by Gwynne Edwards. But if you are to read the play in English, you’ll want to find the translation by W.S. Merwin. Its lyricism is just as rhythmic and enchanting as the original Spanish. The Merwin translation is also included alongside Blood Wedding, another famous play in Lorca’s so-called rural trilogy— translated by none other than Langston Hughes.

Yerma is taut with anxiety, and though it follows the childless wife of a sheep herder in a sleepy Andalusian village, the play’s characters are largely symbolic. “Yerma,” for instance, means “barren,” so she lives, in effect, as an embodiment her own desperate desire to have children. Yerma’s spiraling anxiety is situation specific: Rural life and values allow her little freedom, and even though she seeks it in only the smallest of bites, she still finds herself constantly the target of malicious gossip for doing so. She’s denied not only her deep need for motherhood, but also the ability to grieve its absence. You can’t help but feel your own chest tighten as you make your way to her inevitable, lonely, barren end.

Her husband Juan is contented to be childless as it costs him less money, and he becomes increasingly frustrated with Yerma for wanting something different than he does. He chides her, calls her a lunatic and a trickster and a slur of other crazywoman-nomers. The dialogue between her and her husband is so recognizable to our contemporary world as to make one cringe:

Juan: The truth is you’re not a normal woman and you want to destroy a man who can’t do much to change it.

Yerma: I don’t know who I am. Give me room to move and breathe! I’ve not let you down in anything.

Juan: I don’t like people pointing me out. That’s why I want to see this door closed and all of you inside the house. (Edwards 55)

Stop being sad, Yerma. It’s annoying. People are starting to talk about me. And though no one hears her—her lot is decided for her, largely by the stubborn small-mindedness in her community—Lorca gives her a beautiful voice with which to lament:

I’ll have a child because I have to have one, or the world makes no sense at all. Sometimes I’m convinced I never shall…and a wave of fire rises from my feet, and everything around me seems empty. The men in the streets, the bulls in the field, the solid stones… they seem like cotton-wool. And I ask myself: What’s the point of it all? (Edwards 73)

Of course, knowing what Lorca himself was denied—to love as a gay man in Catholic Spain, to write while Franco’s regime began to gain power—knowing Lorca’s life makes Yerma even harder to read. But his verse captures the hard glint of terror whether or not you follow its timeline in Spanish literature. You’d get the same deep shudder as you read, whether or not you knew that the play was produced in Madrid’s Teatro Español on December 29th, 1934. Or that by August 1936, he’d be dead, shot by Franco’s thugs in the very olive groves his Yerma wandered.

I think people often fall in love with Granada precisely because of what it’s lost: The era of mostly peaceful cohabitation of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian populations in Al-Andalus. The emir’s red palace on the hill, the “pearl among emeralds,” stands as a constant reminder of pre-Inquisition Spain. The food I ate at Bar Kiki was largely inherited from non-converted Christians living alongside Muslims, mixing culinary traditions and depending on local produce like orange and dates. You can still bathe at the beautiful hammam. Later, though, when you tour the more recent regal additions to the Alhambra— the Palacio de Carlos Quinto, for example—you are walking by a monument to the Catholic Spain. You are reminded in a pamphlet that for years the great Islamic palace was left to ruins, inhabited by squatters.

It’s true that in Granada you might pass a great square dedicated to Queen Isabel and her “legacy,” and you will probably recognize that Franco’s own goes deeply felt, if unspoken. But there’s one thing Andalucía will never brush under the rug: losing Lorca.

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The Centro Federico Garcia Lorca was open on Christmas Eve in Granada, even as the rest of the city was shutting down for the holiday. On exhibit was Teoría del Duende, showcasing his famous lecture in its original manuscript form, alongside exhibition pieces from the cultural and artistic network in which Lorca was deeply embedded. In his lecture, he chases the feeling I had when listening to the flamenco musicians over lunch, when following Yerma to her lonely end:

Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but which comes from the very substance of art. 
For further reading & eating, see more:

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