Return to Spain
Jim's Musings from Paris May 2023
I first encountered Europe 51 years ago, in 1972, as an American high school student on a Spring Break trip to Spain. I should never have been on this trip. It didn’t make any sense. I was studying French in high school, not Spanish. Many of my friends from French class were taking the overnight train from Chicago to Montreal and on to Quebec City for Spring Break, but I decided to go to Spain instead. The trip was organized by one of my favorite English teachers, Mr. Swetin. He was aided in his chaperoning duties by Miss Moskowicz, my Algebra II teacher. The group was small and, it’s strange, but I really don’t remember any of the other students on the trip with any clarity. I was pretty much alone when I took my first airplane ride (lots of turbulence), spent a breathless day in Times Square, and landed early in the morning in what was still, for a few more years, Franco’s Madrid.
The week passed in a fog. I was completely naive and had no idea about Spain’s bloody civil war or the the brutal suffering of the previous 40 years. I experienced the country as an innocent and certain images have remained imprinted in my psyche: women in black walking arm in arm on the still oppressed, but ready to explode, streets of Madrid; the vastness and sadness of The Prado; a Sunday afternoon bullfight with all of its spectacle and cruelty; a dark, smoke-filled taverna in Seville, alive with the rhythms of flamenco; sensually ripe men in tight pants and fierce women with castanets; guitar-accompanied voices erupting from the deepest regions of the human soul; the fragrant aroma of a freshly served paella; the twisting, narrow, mountain roads of Andalucia (there were no highways yet); our fearless driver maneuvering our much too big bus away from the steep edges of precipice after precipice; the awesome beauty of the Alhambra; Romany people living in caves carved into the hillside above Granada, a city that scared me with its mystery and aura of recent violence and poverty.
For more information about Granada’s cave dwellers, here is a link to a 2018, beautifully illustrated, National Geographic article.
When we arrived to Torremolinos, this midwestern boy met the sea for the first time in his life and fell madly in love. For the entire afternoon, I plunged into the waves, splashed ecstatically, and body surfed, caressing each wave of the Mediterranean. The sun set and dusk descended on the beautiful, practically virgin, beach. Reluctantly, I ascended the hill to our small hotel, dined on pescaditos, drank way too much sangria, and danced in the street with the other American teens, whom I can’t remember now, but I’m sure they were also having an experience which would mark them for life.
And now, in 2023, after a winter of back pain and broken bones, I decided that I deserved some recuperation in the sun and booked a trip to southern Spain for Jairo and me. I knew that Torremolinos would be nothing like it was 51 years ago. As one of Spain’s top tourist destinations, the once pristine beach is now lined with luxury hotels, restaurants, fast food shops, and tawdry tourist traps and the lively town center boasts a plethora of gay clubs, tapas bars, and discos. The irony is not lost on me.
My former lover was already past her prime. But her fleshy arms provided the perfect place to rest and decompress.
Each morning, we filled up on the hotel’s ample buffet breakfast with loads of fresh fruit, champagne, and fresh honey dripping from a comb. We sipped bright orange Aperol spritzes beside the pool, rented chaises longues under an umbrella on the beach, and offered our pasty Parisian bodies to the sun. We strolled along the boardwalk, inhaled the fresh coastal air, and flung open the hotel room’s balcony door to experience the sound of the waves at night. I ventured into the sea, but the cold water and deep, shifting, sand made it impossible to maintain balance with my recent injuries, so I retreated to the shore to pay tribute to the Mediterranean, my first sea-lover, and offer thanks for health and happiness.
One day Jairo and I drove to Granada. The Alhambra was just as majestic as I remembered, although now brimming over with hordes of tourists. Romany still live in caves around the Alhambra and above the city, but much fewer than a half century ago. Their neighborhood, Sacromonte, has now become a tourist attraction and some of the caves serve as a museum for a quickly vanishing way of life. We visited several places associated with the playwright and poet Federico García Lorca, including his parent’s house where he was living when Franco’s fascist thugs took him to the countryside and murdered him. Granada has been shined up and did not leave me with the same sense of dread as it did previously, but its brutal history, from the time of Ferdinand and Isabella through the Spanish Civil War, is embedded in the blood-soaked, sun-scorched landscape, which radiates a strong and fiery force.
“Callar y quemarse es el castigo más grande que nos podemos echar encima.”
—Federico García Lorca, Bodas de Sangre, Act II
“To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.”
― Federico García Lorca, Blood Wedding, Act II
“Just to stay quiet and burn up inside, that’s the worst thing that can happen to us.”
—Langston Hughes’ translation
There are many other things we’ve been doing in the past month. Just looking at the two translations of that brief Lorca text reminds me of the problems of translation, which is often on my mind these days. Especially, when we met several good friends from Italy, Carla Pollastrelli and Mario Biagini. They were in Paris for the publication of the first volume of Jerzy Grotowski’s writings in French, Écrits complets, Volume I: 1954-1969: la jeunesse politique au Théâtre Laboratoire. Grotowski’s complete writings are already available in Polish and Italian.
We also visited the phenomenal Songlines exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and, while in the south of Spain, the Museo Picasso Málaga. Recently, Jairo and I each have accompanied friends to the Musée National Picasso-Paris at different times. The museum currently features its permanent collection in a newly curated exhibition by Paul Smith that emphasizes Picasso’s use of color. I guess we are marking the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, April 8, 1973, without even thinking about it.
Also at the Musée Picasso-Paris is an exhibit of artist Faith Ringgold’s work (b. 1930). It’s an emotionally moving display of powerful works, especially in light of Black Lives Matter, the attack on women’s rights, and other recent happenings in the USA. Highly recommended.
I will leave you this month with a few pictures from my production of Blood Wedding (2015) at The University of Akron. The animé aesthetic of the costumes and makeup in dialogue with Lorca’s landscape and his poetry (translated by Langston Hughes) created a wonderfully theatrical, almost operatic, world. I wrote about the production in 2015:
In this play, Hughes and Lorca, two gay artists, enter into a symbiotic relationship that speaks to us of the human dilemma of repressed passion in a world of limited choices. While the rest of the country is going crazy over Fifty Shades of Grey, we have been struggling to comprehend and embody a world in which people follow their impulses, not for selfish pleasure, but in order to connect to the flow of Nature, the pulse of Destiny, and the incarnation of one’s Essence.
As theatre makers, we create and inhabit these imaginative worlds, not only for the enjoyment of the spectator, but also as work on our Selves. Since the first storyteller stood up at the campfire and told the wonders of the Hunt, taking on the roles of all involved, the actor has had a special obligation in human culture—the healer, the truth-teller, the dreamer, the super-human being. The craft can be approached organically or through artifice. In either case, the result, when it works, reminds us all on a primal and visceral level what it is to be awake, to live, to be human.
In the artificial and strange world we are dreaming that is the world of The University of Akron’s Blood Wedding, I watch the young actors fight for mastery of their bodies and voice, to be present in space and time with attention and precision, and to come to terms with their personal conflicts and desires. There is no doubt that the theatre is the greatest playing field for humankind to challenge itself and re-member itself…
“In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.”
--C. G. Jung
For more about the Alhambra check out this National Geographic documentary on Youtube: