Month two in Malaga has been all about people and places. And, of course, the vicissitudes of Spanish-language acquisition.
Since my second week here, I’ve been attending a weekly writers’ meetup of mostly expats, seasonals, and short-stays. Regulars and semi-regulars include a pair of very smart and affable former Seattleites who are co-organizers of the group, an erudite Brit who writes stunning poetry and arresting prose, and a psychologist of sunny disposition and adventurous spirit. It’s a loosely structured format that may involve writing from prompts, sharing work, or talking about aspects of writing. Or sometimes just talking about…anything, which feeds my observations about people, including myself, which feeds my writing. (I have started work on a new novel and it’s my habit to steal from real life.)
After my first writer’s meetup, I approached a young woman whose comment during the discussion had impressed me as necessary and brave. We exchanged contact information and a few weeks later met for churros and chocolate and conversation at the emblematic Casa Aranda. I hope to have many more conversations with her. Bolivian by birth, she came to Spain with her family when she was eight. I’m intrigued by her story and her intelligence and am buoyed by the prospect of a friendship.
We met our lovely American neighbors with whom we share a terrace wall. I was scrubbing our outdoor furniture of residue that was apparently the result of two calimas, dust storms originating in the Sahara Desert that filled the skies of Malaga in March 2022 and coated the buildings and streets in orange dust, when a woman popped her head around the wall and greeted me. We spoke to each other in Spanish though it soon became amusingly clear that it was not the first language for either of us, so we switched to English. She’s a book lover and one of the first things we did was loan each other a book. Have you ever felt you were destined to become friends with someone? For me, this is one of those instances.
I’ve also run into and exchanged names with three neighbors who are Spanish. I’ve only had the briefest of conversations with them, but they’ve each said in that lovely Spanish way that if I needed anything to just knock on their door. Also, to practice my Spanish beyond the few words I exercise in cafes, I’ve popped in a few times at La Altarcito to chat briefly with the owner Noemi from Vera Cruz, Mexico. Her little store is stocked with handcrafted items, many of which might decorate a Dia de los Muertos altar. Plus, she also sells salsas difficult to find elsewhere, and she told me of a woman from whom I can order tamales. This is how you find the network of Mexicanos in Málaga.
Our Seattle friends Allison and Arline were the first among friends and family to visit us in Málaga and it was a joy to spend time with them. They made a detour in the middle of their Italian vacation to see us but also to connect for the first time in person with Arline’s cousin Claudia, who immigrated from Venezuela during the recent and ongoing exodus, and Claudia’s daughter and grandson. I loved sharing a meal each day with this warm and beautiful group, though my tongue and brain were sometimes taxed from the Spanish conversation.
But it’s an absolute blessing to know Claudia. Arline had previously introduced me to her online soon after my arrival here and we got together twice before Arline and Allison’s visit. Claudia is lovely and kind and both patient and firm when it comes to my stumblings and bumblings in Spanish. After our second meeting, during which I had felt unusually defeated by my
I took an evening walk through the streets of the Centro, listening to the Spanish conversations around me, trying to make out words and sentences and utterly failing, feeling like a character in a movie who walks alone, silent and unseen, in a crowd of people who all know each other or at least have something in common—um, language, for instance. Speaking of movies, my goal is to one day go to the movies here and watch and understand a Spanish film. Will it be months or years? Taking bets.
My weekly in-person Spanish lessons with Sebastián are always fun and productive though I am constantly frustrated by my mistakes. He assures me that one day everything will click. Oh, what a joyous sound that will be. En route to that place of linguistic accomplishment, I am trying to be ever cognizant of my physical surroundings and the history I encounter at nearly every turn in this city that dates back to 770 BC when it was founded by Phoenicians, making it one of the oldest in Europe.
I meet with Sebastián near the garden adjoining the fifteenth-century cathedral of Malaga or more specifically, la Catedral de la Encarnación de Malaga. When I walk past it, I often run my hand along the stonework, trying to commune with its Renaissance past, trying to imagine the hands that cut and laid and sculpted the stones into this massive edifice.
Many evenings, I sit in the garden to read, the tranquility interrupted only by the occasional rat scurrying from hedge to hedge. Doves, like the ones Picasso painted, roost on the cathedral ledges near where fake canons extrude from the stone. Their purpose was to give pause to potential invaders since the sea once nearly reached the cathedral before the land was reclaimed by dredging soil from the river during the Industrial Revolution of which Malaga was at the vanguard.
The Carmen Thyssen Museum is two zigzags away from us—my terminology for navigating the sometimes-labyrinthine layout of the Centro. At first, judging by the intricately cut, wood-coffered ceiling in one of the salas guarded by a pair of stone cherubim, I thought the museum had once been part of a church but the gallery worker explained that it was built around a sixteenth-century baroque palace. Roman ruins were revealed when the new wing of the museum was built. History upon history. The museum houses the works of nineteenth-century Andalusian painters that depict life and traditions of that period. There are also salas for contemporary works. Current exhibitions include Fervor de Buenos Aires, featuring photos by the Argentine Horacio Coppola and Grete Stern, his wife who fled Germany in 1938, bringing with her the Bauhaus influence. While Coppola’s photos are starkly beautiful cityscapes, Stern’s are a captivating commentary on the psychological and social situation of women. Here’s a 2015 New Yorker item that includes a slide show of some of Stern’s work that appears in the current Carmen Thyssen exhibition.
A short walk away is the Ateneo, built around 1590 originally as a Jesuit convent and later becoming, amid a succession of other things, the school of fine arts where Picasso’s father taught. Today it’s a cultural center that hosts art exhibitions, lectures, and conferences. A current show by contemporary Malaga artist Juanjo Fuentes includes sculptures that humorously blend the earnestness of coolly composed and sometimes saintly porcelain figurines with incongruous objects.
The Ateneo sits at one corner of the Plaza de la Constitución, the main town square since the Reconquista. It’s adorned by a sixteenth-century fountain. Merging with the plaza is the main pedestrian thoroughfare Calle Larios, lined with shops and filled with people at all hours of the day and night.
The building we live in was built in 1888. The interior has been modernized, but the exterior maintains its nineteenth-century bourgeois aspect. We’re lucky to have happened upon this apartment. As my teacher Sebastián described its location, we’re “en el centro del centro del Centro.” It’s a delightful incongruity to step from our quiet, very private-feeling apartment into the lively, teeming street, each time aware that our feet tread upon layers of history.
Next month is my seventieth birthday. I’ve organized an all-Spanish conversation get-together with some of the women I’ve met here. I will celebrate my good fortune in having met them. I’ve also planned a trip to Ronda, a nearby cliffside town once under Moorish rule, with settlements dating from the Neolithic with a succession of the usual suspects—Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths—usurping power in between. A long history that puts into perspective my cumulative years. I am but a blip—ephemeral, forgettable. (But I’m a blip with a Spanish residency card, obtained May 11!)