I don’t have jet lag on my way to Spain, but I’m a verified basket case when I get back. I know, it’s supposed to be the other way around, but go figure. This time going over was hard because at the last minute one of my granddaughters contracted mononucleosis and they weren’t able to come with me. I had to cancel all their reservations and I booked a different itinerary for me. I didn’t want to go to Valencia, where I was born, without them, for example. Next time soon, I hope.
In any case, I’m back reflecting on one of the characteristic immigrant experiences: the trip back home. One of my favorite pastimes is learning new words. This year in Málaga everyone was talking about the “calima” they experienced two weeks earlier. “Calima is the Spanish word used to describe when there’s sand or dust in suspension in the atmosphere.” The English translation is haze, but haze doesn’t do it justice. Basically, calima is a mud storm coming from the Sahara Desert. All over Andalucía it stained the buildings with red dirt despite power washing; cars were caked in mud… you get the picture.
I also learned a new expression: “Irse por los cerros de Úbeda.” Actually, I knew it already, but I used it the wrong way. It doesn’t mean to go as far as the heights of Úbeda, a far away place -although Úbeda is indeed far. It means to go off at a tangent, to beat around the bush. Sort of what I’m doing today here. Well, this year I went to Úbeda for real. It’s a jewel of a city in the province of Jaén, in Southern Spain, which together with Baeza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its collection of forty-eight medieval and renaissance monuments. It sits over the Guadalquivir River Valley with its famous elevations covered with olive trees as far as the eyes can see.
What was I doing there? You may ask. Together with a PhD student from the University of Málaga , who filmed our trip, and Helen, a friend from Philadelphia, for three days I went through the towns where my father was stationed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Aside from the stunning Úbeda and Baeza, we visited Linares, Andújar, Marmolejo, Arjona, Arjonilla, Mengíbar, Porcuna and several more towns. Retracing my father’s footsteps was indeed emotional and meaningful. When some of the local inhabitants heard that he had been there during the war, they insisted that we go inside their patios and see how real Andalusians live, in their private paradise protected from the heat of the day.
I had never visited this area of Spain, but I have been working for almost ten years on the letters between my parents during the war and I finally had to see for myself. The descriptions of these places in my father’s letters were moving, although, thankfully, nothing is left from the war’s destruction now. The magnificent Santa María de la Cabeza Sanctuary atop the Sierra Morena Mountains is fully rebuilt, the fields are neatly plowed, covered with fruit trees and the eternal olive groves. The Guadalquivir River flows peacefully next to the Marmolejo baths, the highways are immaculately kept. For a few days I could image what it must have been to march through those fields, to walk on the stone-covered streets under the hot Andalusian sun, to climb those mountains. A trip to Spain, indeed, like no other.