June is my birthday month and though I’ve never been one to celebrate for an entire month, I thought that because this birthday was doubly significant— hitting the very big Seven-Oh! and doing it in Spain—that every day this month, I would write down something that made me happy. That intention lasted a few days. There are only a few things I’m capable of committing to on a regular basis: crossword puzzles, exercise, writing, and reading. Noting things down in a journal has never been one of my dedicated practices.
It turns out it wasn’t necessary to write down the particular things that make me happy each day. Just being here makes me happy. Whether I’m walking among the throngs on Calle Larios or alone on a narrow side street among centuries-old ghosts I’m happy. I know I’m not the only one to feel this way.
There’s a statue of Hans Christian Anderson on Alameda Principal which I pass almost daily. He sits on the end of a bench leaving room for anyone to sit beside him, which I’ve seen many people do for photos. The plaque reads,
“In no other Spanish city I have come to feel as happy and as comfortable as in Málaga.”
Though I haven’t been to a lot of cities in Spain, I feel the truth in Anderson’s statement. It’s from his travel book on Spain which he visited in 1862, staying in the Fonda del Oriente in Malaga, a hotel then but now a multi-use building for businesses and residents. A large, decorative tile commemorates Anderson’s stay there. I was told by a man familiar with the building and its history that Anderson wrote “The Philosopher’s Stone” there.
The Spanish celebrate literary figures, their own as well as those from other countries. They erect monuments to them and name streets and plazas after them everywhere, including Ronda where we went to celebrate my birthday. Ronda is only 62 miles from Malaga but by bus, it takes a good two hours or more to get there. The road up the mountain is narrow, the zigzags short and sharp, and I arrived a bit queasy. As we walked from the bus station in search of our hotel, the wooziness subsided and the thrill of being in Ronda was amplified when we came upon Avenida Poeta Rilke. I read later that Rilke had stayed in the Hotel Reina Victoria which had preserved his room 208 as a museum until a major remodeling relegated a few artifacts to a display between the bar and the spa. It seems sadly poetic. Or poetically sad.
We stayed at the Hotel Catalonia across the street from the iconic bullring, one of the oldest in Spain and frequented by Hemingway and Orson Welles. The paseo behind the bullring is named for Welles. Monuments to both stand at the entrance to the nearby park named for Blas Infante, the essayist and politician who was killed by Franco’s troops at the start of the Spanish Civil War.
The views in Ronda are spectacular—the famous Puente Nuevo bridge, the gorge, the valley—and its history beginning with prehistoric settlements followed by Celts and the sequence of the usual suspects —Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, Christians—is reflected throughout the Old City. All of it is chronicled in the museum of the Palacio Mondragón which also has an enchanting and tranquil garden with a magnificent view of the valley. Oh, to spend time reading and writing in that garden!
Speaking of reading, a few books I recently read were Monster by Claire Dederer, Orphan Bachelors by Fae Myenne Ng, and Meet Me in Atlantic City by Jane Wong. Five stars to each for great writing, deep and compassionate insights, as well as brave looks at difficult, messy human failings.
As far as my own writing, I’m still looking for an agent for my novel Ofelia and Norma. Wishing on stars in the Malaga night sky, tossing coins in fountains, cruzando los dedos, esperando, esperando. Meanwhile, I have started writing a new novel whose characters are causing me all sorts of merriment.
I have an essay coming out in October from the wonderful journal Museum of Americana and one after that from Hypertext Magazine. The anthology What’s Next? Short Fiction in Time of Change, edited by Sharyn Skeeter and which includes a story of mine along with those from notables such as Charles Johnson, George Saunders, Brenda Peynado, Amina Gautier, and twenty others, is getting wonderful reviews here and here, for instance. And a story set in Malaga is percolating somewhere en el fondo de mi cerebro.
I’m still meeting with my writing group in Seattle over Zoom. loving new and recent projects from Allison Green and Jennifer Munro and am excited about the publication in October of Alma Garcia’s novel All That Rises from the University of Arizona Press. While I’ve moved to another country, distance doesn’t preclude me from connecting with writers and friends in Seattle and across the United States, though I’m sorry to miss so many exciting in-person book events.
Living in Spain so far feels comfortable and right. My seventieth birthday in Ronda was the best ever. The beauty of the landscape, the layers of history, the ruins of past civilizations and the structures that still stand from centuries ago, and the lovely people encountered in cafes and shops and on the street create a dreamy ambiance for any birthday. But for my first birthday in Spain and a milestone one at that, it was dreamy times ten.
In early June, I invited a few new friends in Malaga to join me for a late morning desayuno at one of the restaurants in the plaza out the backdoor of my building. The conversation was necessarily in Spanish so I was challenged to keep up, but it was a delightful time with lovely friends. I’m trying to remember that language acquisition is a process and that it requires a lot of practice. In my weekly sessions with Sebastián, my Spanish teacher, I constantly slap my forehead in frustration. Tranquila, he says, laughing. And I’m assured that this process of learning, while maddening, can also be fun.
If I were seventeen or twenty-seven surely it would be easier. But I’m seventy. What will my Spanish be like when I’m seventy-one? Stick with me here. Let’s find out.