Monday, June 22, 2015

Barcelona Notebook #2: Return to Sitges

(c) 1997 and my favorite from that trip
It was a deliberate act of reiteration, returning to Barcelona at the end of May. In 1998 when Markus and I traveled with one-year-old Simon, we flew from Detroit to Barcelona. It was Simon's second flight to Europe, having attended the funeral of his great grandmother Bichler in Leonding (outside Linz, Austria) when he was five months old. Our destination was Sitges (rhymes, appropriately, with "beaches") on the coast about 30 minutes southwest of Barcelona. We'd been unable to get a room for the first night in the Meliá Sitges hotel, where Markus had a conference to attend, so we booked into a place we found in a travel guide. As I recall it, our trip was essentially pre-internet. I'm willing to bet Markus didn't even schlepp along a computer.

This time around, in 2015, we had a repeat of the first-night scenario. I looked for an Airbnb* apartment for Markus, Miriam and me in the Gràcia district of Barcelona to be near the location of my writing workshop at Jiwar. We made the decision to travel just four weeks to our arrival, and I had to work fast to figure out the Airbnb process as a first-timer. The more I looked, the less I found. Finally, an apartment was available for all but the first night. It was around the corner from Sagrada Famìlia, which would be 15-30 minutes from my workshop, but it would be beds and a shower. Meanwhile, hotel rooms for our arrival night on May 30th were vanishing with prices pushing 500 Euros a room. Why? It turns out there were a couple of festivals, but the big event was the final game in the Copa del Rey: Barcelona vs. Bilbao. Spain's premier soccer final, played in Barcelona. No wonder.

Casa Mallagrena B&B in the mountains outside Sitges, 2015
There's some symmetry, then, to the fact that we booked a room just outside Sitges for one night at Casa Mallarenga, a mountainside bed and breakfast run by two Scots. Hosts Caroline and Peter offer pleasant accommodations and a tasty breakfast that includes two national specialties: pan Catalan (toasted bread smeared with a soft tomato and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper) and orange marmalade (homemade) on croissants and toast.

The B&B is decorated with posters depicting the Hebrides, plus Harris Tweed pillows on the sofas. We got some ideas about places to visit along the Scottish coast, and I'm pleased to say it was a Scotsman who turned me on to the salty pleasure of pan Catalan for breakfast. It does go with coffee!

Markus on the steps of the seaside church in Sitges, 2015
The evening before, after settling in to the B&B, we drove down to Sitges to wander around and find dinner. It's a Mediterranean coastal town of 28,000, known for its gay friendliness although equally enjoyed by all kinds of people. Markus, Simon, and I spent about four days there in 1998. While Markus was at the conference, Simon and I rested and played on the beach. In the evenings, Markus joined us for walking around and more beach time.

In this picture, Markus is holding a small photo album that I made of our 1998 trip to take along. We compared features in the photos with the places we found. Did we remember this place? Was that where we had the picnic? Is that the swingset Simon played on? Seventeen years is a lot of time. I found my basic memories were correct: the conference hotel was somewhere up there, behind the church (true). That must be the beach we went down to (true). But did I remember being there, in that coastal town, with Simon? Only the pictures, really, I remember the pictures from studying them. But the feeling of Simon on my lap, nursing, running in the waves... Memory is an elusive modality.

Akelarre Taverna in Sitges, 2015
Our night wandering in Sitges took us to a tavern where we settled in to watch the Barcelona vs. Bilbao game on television. We took a liking to pinxos (yummy things on a slice of baguette, self-serve from the bar, and you pay by the number of skewers on your plate at the end). We learned to call cervesa by its Catalan name, caña. Barcelona won, of course. They're winning everything this year. The folks in the tavern paid mild attention to the game.

A few more photos from 2015 and 1998 in Sitges.

Mediterranean boys, 1998

Seaside picnic, 1998

Evening strollers, 2015

*Airbnb, for those who haven't tried it yet, is an international network of bed and breakfast type accommodations hosted by regular folks (more or less). You book via a website, on which you have to build a profile and prove your identity to be taken as a safe renter. Now that I've done it once, I feel comfortable about trying it again.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

52 years ago: Another birth to tell you about

Today is Flag Day again. On this day in 1963, flag day or not, my mother's utuerus yawned and heaved until around 3:30 pm out I came. She was in Allen Memorial Hospital in Oberlin, Ohio, attended by Dr. Siddall, who presided over the births of most everyone I came to know. I had a head full of coarse black hair, which the nurses pulled together with a tiny bow at the top of my head. My father was invited to sit in the waiting room, where no doubt someone came out to exclaim, "It's a girl!"

June 14, 1963

Since the small town anesthesiologist took summers off, there was only a machine attached to a mask with some sort of ether-gas to ease the pain. Self-serve. As she'd done for my sister's birth three years prior, my mother took a little whiff when she needed it. Two years later when my brother came in April, who needed an anesthesiologist?

I was born on Friday. Back then, mothers and new babies somehow spent about a week in the hospital after the birth. I walked out the very next day after both of mine, so I do wonder what Mom and I did that week. I know she breastfed. Somewhat counter to prevailing 1960's culture, she nursed three babies about nine months each, going straight from breast to cup--no need for bottles.

At our house, Granny watched over Julie, who asked every day during that long week, Is it Saturday? Granny patiently explained, No, it's Monday or It's Wednesday. When Granny finally asked her why she wanted to know, Julie exclaimed, Because Saturday is pancakes! (Our mother's trick to limit Julie's daily wish for a messy breakfast. Saturday is still pancake day when you visit my parents.)

Home from the hospital to live with sister Julie.

I don't often think of the umbilical connection to my mother or about the months I spent tucked inside her. Each one of us comes from that experience--so far as I know, there's no other way to arrive as a mammal on this planet. And here is my welcoming sibling--somehow exactly me and somehow entirely different. Isn't she a cute almost three year old? (The hilarious hair I was born with fell out and was replaced by softer actual baby hair.)

Julie's baby.

When I got language, I called her Dee. I'm told I stood with my face pressed to the front screen door whenever she went off on her own with a little sadness in my voice saying, Dee go out? I know I welcomed her home like a frolicking puppy.

On the day I was born, cousin Sarah, who was already big sister to cousin Ken, lived in Portland, Oregon. That day she went out ringing the neighbors' doorbells to announce a confluence of events: Today is Flag Day, and Grandma and Granddad are getting married again because there's a new baby in the family.

Factoid: 52 years at 52 weeks per year makes me some kind of perfect square today. I'm 1,144 weeks old.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Launching Barcelona Notebook

I have been away--away from home, away from cat (hair), away from media. Well, most media. I traveled to Barcelona for a 10-day poetry course. How's that!

The pleasure of a writing workshop in June is a tradition I've kept nearly every year for the last 11 years. I took part in the annual Writers at Work conference as a Salt Lake local 2005-2009. I missed 2010 (we were moving) and 2011 (residues of the move). Since coming to Germany, I've returned to Salt Lake City three times for the June conference (in 2014 as a fellowship winner). In fact, that wonderful organization is holding this year's conference right now, 5,000 miles away.

Writers at Work is a great conference for new-ish writers. I'm proud of and grateful for my own pedigree: Brenda Miller (2005), Jesse Lee Kercheval (2006), Christopher Cokinos (2007), Abigail Thomas (2008), Eileen Pollack (2009), Steve Almond (2012), Katherine Coles (2013), Robin Hemley (2014).

From my seat on the back deck in Flein, where two black cats slink around in the overgrown grass, the blue-blue Utah sky feels far away. This year's conference site at Ft. Douglas looks out over the University of Utah and the Salt Lake Valley; I bet standing there I could almost see Simon's grave at Mt. Olivet. So here's a shout out to all my dear people and places in Salt Lake: I miss you this year, so far away.

I have stayed closer to home this time. At the AWP conference in April, in addition to gathering information about low-residency MFA programs, I searched for English writing opportunities in European locations. The final evening of the conference I caught the last ten minutes of a reception hosted by various residency programs, hoping the promise of "and international" in the description would yield options.

Postcard for writing workshop
with Sharon Dolin
I passed by a postcard with an image that did not quite capture my recollection. Writing About Art In Barcelona. I took the card and walked on, looking to pick up whatever else I could find. Barcelona? Art? Poetry? Me?

A brisk motion with a VVRRT sound grabbed my attention from the right. That sculpture thing, life size, had just rolled down from a stand at the wall. A slender blond in a black top was gathering it in. I connected her to the postcard in my hand and started a conversation about how, although I live in Europe and would like good writing opportunities there, Barcelona Art Poetry had not been on my mind.

And then I felt a tingle in the softness of my knees and elbows, radiating from my spine. That adrenal fight-or-flight-something-is-going-on tingle. I had been to Barcelona once before, and I had seen the sculpture on that postcard. Markus had attended a conference in the beach town of Sitges, and Simon (age just barely one) and I had traveled along. May 25-June 2, 1998.

Fundació Miró May 1998
Back to Barcelona, 17 years later. What a beautiful trip we had--happy new parents and a healthy, bouncing boy enjoying a (mostly) vacation trip. Back to places I'd visited with Simon, long before I had any idea how much a child can suffer and that he would be that child. Before I knew how diminishing it is to lose the brightest light of your life. Back in 1998 I didn't even know yet what it feels like to have the brightest light turn into two with my second child.

The details: the workshop fell within Miriam's two-week vacation (Pfingsten). We could all go! That is, we could get an apartment in Barcelona, and Markus and Miriam would go shopping and see various sites while I attended the daily two-hour workshop. Most afternoons they could join cultural visits with the poetry group. To boot, Markus had a two-day conference in Toulouse the end of the prior week. He flew there and took a train to Barcelona, where he met me and Miriam at the airport. I stayed on for the last four days alone, while Markus and Miriam returned in time for her to get back to school. Super tidy.

I have so much to process, so much to report. I will be writing a new series here: Barcelona Notebook. It will be more occasional than daily, and it will be my opportunity to reflect on both trips--1998 and 2015. Learnings from a 10-day writing workshop could take forever to settle in. Let's see where this goes. I hope you'll come along!

Thisbe Nissen's reading
recommendations in 2008
Meanwhile, I am back to what I left when I departed. I'm working my way through a re-discovered reading list, given to me by Thisbe Nissen in 2008. Those interlibrary loans burn holes in my night table. I returned the Mangusso and Flynn (I mentioned them on May 18th) before I left for Barcelona. John D'Agata's essay collection Halls of Fame awaited me after the trip. I've been back for "two sleeps" now (as Simon used to say). D'Agata's words go into me like perfectly toasted nuts--irresistible and long in the chewing. For example, the essay about Martha Graham, written as alphabetized portions of dictionary definition. I'd never heard of D'Agata in the summer of 2008 when I talked with Thisbe. That fall I read his anthology The Next American Essay for two classes. I liked it so much I typed up every bit of his interwoven essay introducing the other 32, just to see what it looked like in one piece. (Side note: Thisbe's recommendations are written in three colors of ink. I'm practically certain she was using my four-ink pen, which had actually been Simon's.)

This list is a treasure. Marilyn Ablidskov and Mary Allen, whoever you are, you're next. I've already read the Hood and the Hall (both grief memoirs).