Granada: This Must be the Place

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I couldn’t go back.

The last days of May 2012 were etched in my memory, playing on a loop every day since my return to the States. I dreamed of watching the sun turn the Sierra Nevada peaks pink once more, of jumping on the back of a moto and weaving through the old streets one last time, but everything was different and I couldn’t go back.

Granada became a sort of fairy tale for me. The cloudy, fabled type of fairy tale that makes real life seem sad in comparison. The city nestled between mountain and sea was a paradise that I wasn’t completely sure truly existed.

How could what I lived during those five months be real? How could a place like that go on existing when I was drowning in New York with two jobs and a full course load?

My first taste of Granada changed my life forever. It opened my eyes to the magic that’s possible each and every day when you seek it out, to a new rhythm of life, and left me with an insatiable hunger for Spanish language and culture. I worked like crazy to return to Spain and come August found myself in Madrid, four hours north of my precious oasis. With a trip planned south soon after my arrival, of course.

I was convinced that Madrid would never capture my heart. Poets didn’t write about Madrid, its history doesn’t do much for a romantic and madrileño Spanish is much too proper to be charming, I thought. Andaluz and the land of Falla and Lorca and the olive groves would always be the dueños de mi corazón.

But within ten days of arriving in Madrid, I cancelled my trip to Granada.

Against my internal protests, the capital was sucking me in. The diversity of the city, the vibrant nightlife and abundance of interesting souls I had encountered in a few short weeks told me I couldn’t go back just yet. I couldn’t give my heart back to the city of my dreams just yet, for fear that it might stay there forever. I needed to give this new place that was being so good to me a fighting chance.

So I spent five months falling head-over-heels for my new home, and one January evening I wrapped myself in a blanket, lit candles and sat down to reread my well-worn copy of Romancero gitano for the hundredth time. As soon as I reached the third ballad, I knew it was time. My heart cried out for the land that first called me to this country and I finally felt ready. Within an hour I had a flat booked, bus tickets set and stars in my eyes.

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Within the past month I have spent a total of ten days in Granada, and it is even more heart-stoppingly dreamy than I remember.  The city found little ways of showing me why it will always be the be-all, end-all in my eyes. From wandering the winding streets and spotting puppies peering over walls, to letting my thoughts escape me under the strong February sun as the enchanting cadence of my beloved Andaluz accent and Spanish guitars transported me to an alternate reality, Granada wasted no time in wrapping her beautiful hand around me, promising that this time she wouldn’t let go.

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This time, I don’t want her to. In no time I forget about my past in Granada, about my constant desire to relive it, and decide to start a new romance with this beauty. Without trepidation I retrace my steps to my old haunts, but now with new friends and more life lived under my belt. We spend our days in the sun and our nights laughing with locals in crowded, hidden tapas bars then adventuring out to cause the best kind of trouble.

Granada makes me feel like I can do anything. She inspires me to chase my dreams, all the while making them even bigger than I thought possible.

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I am more than content in Madrid, but as for the soul-stimulating, utterly captivating and mysterious jewel to the south….well, she’ll continue to be my mistress in this Spanish love affair until the day of my return to her inevitably arrives.

For me, Granada will always be the place.

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down where the olive trees grow

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“Podría sentarme aquí todo el día, sólo para mirar al cielo andaluz” 

“I could sit here all day, just to stare at this Andalusian sky,” I breathed as we sunk down into the shade, seeking solace from the afternoon heat. My eyes had been glued to the heavens since we arrived two days earlier, when my preferred region seemed to set them on fire, welcoming me back after a long year away. This time I would not be back in Granada, though. This time, my dreams of Andalucía would come to life in the olive groves of Sevilla.

As soon as I arrived in Paradas, I knew I was in trouble. I knew I was going to end up leaving yet another piece of my heart in this sleepy pueblo. The white-washed houses, azulejo tile accents, quiet roads and rolling olive groves are irresistible to this romantic, as anyone who has ever read my blog should know. I spent the weekend here recharging my batteries, surrounded by the most wonderful familia sevillana; doting mother, chattering aunts and olive-farmer grandfathers included.  With a belly full of grandma’s croquetas,  mama’s patatas con tomate and papa’s Rioja of choice, I felt as home as I could be thousands of miles away from my own family. That’s the thing about the andaluz people; they have a way of warming your soul from the inside out just by being themselves. They care for you and chide you and feed you and love you as if you were their own.

This is what I mean when I say that Spain and her people are being incredibly generous to me. I moved back here six weeks ago, and have somehow found myself welcomed into a family. Paradas, Javier’s parents, grandparents, aunts and cousins,  and the memories I brought back to Madrid with me will always be so very precious.

I hope my photographs and stories can do my time here justice.

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It’s beginning to feel like fall in Madrid, but summer’s still in full swing down south. The temperatures climbed to the high 80′s this weekend, so short strolls around town were scattered between cool-downs in the garden and fresh juice inside the traditional andalusian patio.

Each time we got our energy up to head back into the heat, we were met with quiet streets. We could walk for blocks without seeing a soul. Every so often, though, we’d come across a group of children giggling in the shade, mom’s watching easily from their perch at the café, or an elderly couple out for a stroll.   Each and every person we saw met us with a big smile and blessings; normal for the man at my side whose father grew up here, not so much for this stranger. In New York smiling at a stranger could get you into a good deal of trouble. I think I like the Paradas reaction a bit better.

Once the sun went down, people started to trickle out of their homes and into the plazas for beers, plates of shared food, and more beer. By then, we couldn’t walk five feet without being greeted by a relative, childhood friend or waitress with an exceptional memory. Any question I had was readily and happily answered as I learned about the tiles that decorated many homes (influence from the age of Al-andalus, I’m told), which restaurants have the best food, and which are good because they allow the family dog to dine with you. I learned that the town’s intricately beautiful church was largely destroyed during the civil war, though the painting by El Greco inside was salvaged. I learned that the best tortilla de patatas shouldn’t look too pretty, and that you should always, always let a local order for you.

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We planned our trip very last minute, realizing we could catch the last harvest of the season. The olives in Sevilla are largely reserved for the table, picked early and by hand so as to avoid over-ripeness and bruising. We bounced our way into the olive groves around mid-day in grandpa’s truck, just as the sun was getting hot, to watch the process unfold.

I’ve dreamt of exploring these fields since I first read García-Lorca’s poetry, yearning to interpret the metaphors for myself among the trees that spoke to him. My literary pilgrimage ended in awe as I absorbed the vastness and natural beauty of the groves. This is the Andalucía, the land of folklore and tradition, that inspired so many artists before me. The cities have all the typical charm coupled with the modernity that makes them livable for people like me, but reality lives here in the campilla sevillana. No jaw-dropping architecture or romantic stories of arab kings and queens, just true and simple beauty, true and simple pleasures, true and simple, and wonderful people.

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The reality is that this land is truly full of folklore, with a great appreciation for cante jondo, Spanish guitar and poetry, but only once the long work day is over. Each and every olive that is placed on your table when you order a beer has been picked by hand, examined for size, shape and ripeness, and dropped into the basket that hangs from the worker’s neck. Olives for oil ripen until November and then are shaken from the trees, but table olives take extra care. The men’s gnarled fingers were a testament to that.

No one complains, though. In fact, the men were genuinely passionate about their work, chattering away about the different type of olives and how to tell if they’re just right. The weeks of harvest are long and hard, but rewarded on Sundays when wives and children bring picnics to enjoy under the shade of the lush branches; little ones learning how to pick from their fathers, wives fanning themselves and chastising the teenagers who’d rather be at home.

I always fancied Andalucía to be a place of dreams, refusing to believe that it’s anything but paradise. I was surprised I wasn’t disappointed when I found just how real the day-to-day is in the campo, but even more enchanted. The harsh reality of the hands of the grove workers in the context of the Eden-like surroundings seemed like a metaphor for the beauty of life. For positivity in the face of negativity and bad news.

As I see it now, it must be in this image that my favorite artists found their inspiration, because my soul was filled with it that afternoon.

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I am so very content with my life in Madrid and know I’m where I belong in this moment, but I can’t help but dream of a long life under the andalusian sky.

Podría sentarme aquí todo el día, sólo para mirar al cielo andaluz,” I said, and we agreed that one just breathes better down here.

Yes, “se respira mejor,” and all I know is that I want to grow old with the magic of the campo air filling my lungs as I watch the sun fall behind the branches of the farthest olive tree.

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