Month Seven (Mostly Not) in Málaga – Of New York City and Northern Spain

A group huddled under umbrellas in the middle of a plaza at night

It turns out I spent only three and a half days in Málaga in October. James and I had to be in New York City for the first three weeks of the month to attend to an issue that had been pending prior to our move. New York offers its own unique attractions and I fit in what I could during our time there—the Manet/Degas exhibit at the Met, the Treasures exhibit at the library, the Brooklyn Book Festival, walks in Central Park and meetups with two fabulous writers, one morning brunching with Yume Kitasei, author of the acclaimed novel Deep Sky, and another morning eating giant almond croissants with Cristina Garcia, whose marvelous eighth novel Vanishing Maps I read with great enjoyment this month.

Despite those pleasures, I missed Málaga every day, especially as the weather in New York began to cool, and rain, that infrequent meteorological phenomenon in Málaga, required us to purchase umbrellas. I took mine back to Spain because a few days after returning to Málaga, I headed north to Bilbao to meet up with Seattle writer/editor Sharyn Skeeter and Seattle actress Stephanie Hilbert whose most recent project is Earth Grammie.

I arrived a day ahead of them and sat down for a delicious dinner near my hotel in the Casco Viejo. The weather was pleasant and the restaurant’s glass doors were slid open so my table was exposed to the pedestrian path. I’d been texting with James in Málaga so my phone was on the table in front of me. Sometime between finishing the lubina and awaiting the pantxineta I discovered my phone was gone. I immediately realized what must have happened. Earlier, a man passing by stopped and stepped up to my table, spread a handful of tattered postcards in front of me obscuring the table and anything on top of it. When I shook my head at him with a polite no, gracias, he gathered his cards, apparently picking up my phone in the process. I expressed my woes to the server and she was duly sympathetic and indignant on my behalf

Because there was a tracker on my phone, James could see that it was about six blocks from me and sent me a screenshot. I figured I would report it to the police and they would be able to retrieve the phone. I asked a taxi driver to take me to the police station and I ended up at the Municipal Station instead of the local station nearest me. He said I would get better service there. Inside, I explained what happened and the officer said that no one in the building could leave and that I would have to go back to where the theft happened and call the police from there. He gave me a number to call for la patrulla. I went to my hotel to grab a jacket and explained to the desk clerk what had happened and he called the patrol number for me. He was told that I needed to go to the site where I knew the phone to be and then call the patrol number. The desk clerk told me not to go all the way to the address because it was a dark street, so I stopped a block away and realized I couldn’t call the police because my U.S. phone, still in my possession, lacked a SIM card. A man at a nearby shop said I should call 112, the emergency number, so I did and they connected me with the Bilbao police. I told my story again and the officer asked my location and said someone would come by. After 30 minutes no one had come so I called again and talked to two different people, the second one of whom told me there was nothing they could do since the Google locator showed the phone to be inside a residence and they could only do something if the phone was in the street. So, there went about two hours of my first night in Bilbao. A wild goose chase— and all done in Spanish!

The phone theft notwithstanding, Bilbao was enchanting. It was fun to share that enchantment with Sharyn and Stephanie during our day at the Guggenheim. We spent three hours immersed in art and then nearly as long leisurely consuming a delicious lunch in the museum bistro. Later, in the evening I browsed the outdoor book stalls at the Parque Arenal.

People browsing at outdoor book stalls at night

Three women, a redhead surrounded by two dark-haired women, on a windy day in Northern SpainThe next day we took the bus to San Sebastian, arriving just in time for lunch at the elegant Maria Cristina Hotel, which I later read was one of the places that Hemingway liked to frequent. It was also where he gave the rights to the Basque edition of The Old Man and the Sea. We saw the city via a blustery, sometimes rainy, bus tour and then warmed up enough with cups of tea to be able to sit by the river and chat and people-watch and marvel at the scenic city. In the evening, Sharyn and Stephanie were on the bus back to Bilbao before heading to Barcelona.

That night in San Sebastian, I walked along the promenade by the beach. A breeze just brisk enough to whip your hair around wildly and refreshingly, the sound of the surf, and a street musician crooning boleros made for one of those moments when your life feels like a movie.

Nighttime beach scene

It rained nearly all the following day. I spent several hours in the morning at the San Telmo Museum where I saw the Manual de Larramendi trilingual dictionary of Castillian, Basque, and Latin, among other treasures. Then I walked in the rain to glimpse landmarks through the mist, and later strolled the paseo in the direction favored by surfers and watched a cluster of them ride the waves. In the morning I took one last invigorating walk before boarding a bus to Pamplona where the Plaza del Castillo, with its Café Iruña and Hotel la Perla, was a frequent haunt not only for Hemingway but for the characters in his novel The Sun Also Rises.

I signed up for a walking tour in Spanish. It was the only one I could find on short notice, but I figured I could handle it. I remembered taking a tour in Spanish while in Ecuador and understanding a good ninety percent. I was mortifyingly wrong this time about my comprehension skills. The guide, a participant in the annual running of the bulls, was great, engagingly enthusiastic and demonstrative, with an obvious love for his city and a deep knowledge of its history. But the Castilian accent and the velocity of speech often totally discombobulate me and this was a first-class example.

I messaged my Spanish teacher (who is Chilean) in Málaga with alarm that I have learned nothing. He wrote back, “Tranquila, a veces yo mismo no les entiendo a los españoles.” Okay, so maybe I’m not a total failure, but that episode was a reminder of how far I still have to go.

My favorite thing besides walking around and feeling the vibe of Pamplona was a visit to the Museo de Navarra. They combine the work of contemporary artists in the same galleries that house their permanent collection of antiquities and classical art for some startling but always fascinating juxtapositions.

Burgos cathedral at nightI was on a train to Burgos the next day. It was cold and rainy when I arrived and I was too tired to go far for food so I went to the nearest place where I had average fare and a server who complimented me on my Spanish and my accent. Made up a little bit for the bewilderment I felt on the tour in Pamplona.

My only full day there was a Monday, so after being gobsmacked by the beauty of the cathedral and walking up to the mirador for a panoramic view of the city, my only other diversion was walking the streets of the city since all the museums were closed. I soon tired of walking in the blustery cold and was content to just relax in the apartment I’d rented. Truth was I was a little tired of city hopping and was ready for the six-hour train ride to spend the last hours of October in Málaga, my home, where it was raining, but where the temperature made jackets optional.

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