Once upon a time a bumblebee visited Granada. It wanted to see the Alhambra and flew into the window of a bus in hopes of making it all the way to the top but, after three stops, it realized it was on the wrong bus. After some frazzled consultation with some very flustered Americans and confirming his suspicions with the bus driver, the bumblebee found himself bound for the edge of Granada in the opposite direction.
The bumblebee, possessing of a fairly pleasant disposition and flexibility when it comes to traveling, enjoyed the accidental bus tour of Granada, revelling in such sights as Plaza de Toros and Hospital General Virgen de las Nieves. He tried to make friends with the lost Americans who had made the same mistake as him in their attempt to find Armilla and the feria de caballo but they weren’t big fans of flying insects. To pass the time, the bumblebee eavesdropped on the people that got on and off the bus.
Right from the outset, the bee knew what he wanted to do with his life. He’d barely been out of his pupa stage when he knew he wanted to see the world. He spent a brief year collecting pollen from the flowers outside the window of the head of the history department at Harvard and learning all he could about the ideological origins of the British Empire before he was scooped up on an opportunity to be researched in Europe. Lab life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be so, after a daring escape through an air vent, the bumblebee set out to further his love for history and travel.
The gist of what the bee learned was this: ideological origins were all well good and the flowers at Versailles were quite lovely, but what really made both travels and history were the people. When the bee traveled, whether to Istanbul or Granada, he liked to listen to what people had to say: about themselves, about the weather, about politics, about cooking, about art, about bees, about horse fairs and first trips to Granada and summer camp and teaching abroad and getting lost on buses.
1. The Artist from Prague
Our hostel was in Albayzin, the oldest neighborhood in Granada and a maze of cobblestone streets. To find our way to Gran Via, Christina and I employed a full-proof method of navigation that basically boiled down to, Always Turn Right. There was an alleyway crowded with tourist shops trading in postcards, tapestries, lanterns, incense, and MC Hammer pants. Once you’d made it through Little Marrakesh but before Tavern del Beso, there was a miniature plaza with a fountain where artists gathered. We stopped to look at some prints spread on a blanket presided over by a woman with a pixie cut and an Anakin Skywalker dreadlock. We did the traditional Spanish, “Hola, ¿cómo estás?” because Christina is practically fluent and I think it’s very rude to speak English right off the bat when in another country. The woman interrupted us. “Please, do you speak English?” We replied in the affirmative.
The woman was an artist from Prague. She moved to Granada to start over and felt that she’d be able to make a better go of it in Granada. It was strange to meet someone whose situation was so similar to mine. Usually when I encounter non-native Spaniards who’ve relocated to Spain, they speak some level of Spanish. Sometimes I think I’m special because I made the decision to eschew adulthood and move to Spain but then I come along someone who has taken an even bigger risk than I could have ever imagined taking and I am humbled.
2. The Argentinian Poet & The Irish Gatekeeper
In Granada, there is an Argentine poet who sets up at the foot of a bridge over the Darro. There’s also a chatty Irish gent playing something that looks like an oboe (but isn’t) acting as gatekeeper who’ll talk your ear off if given half the chance but it’s worth it for the free poems. The pseudo-oboist is a worldwide traveler: tell him where you’re from and he’ll give you a story about the night he got kicked out of Dick’s Last Resort in San Antonio that involved a Litmus test of sorts for establishing what sort of girl you are which he tried out on Christina (she passed because she’s from Denver; “No, no, maybe they do that sort of thing in Ohio but you’re a good girl from Denver, I can tell.”).
The poet is a one-man assembly line of production. After setting up his station, lighting his paper lanterns, opening his typewriter case for tips, he types up three or four poems, stamps them with his name, logo, and date, then folds them into triangles and adds them to the pile. Scoop one up, leave him a tip, then retire to a teteria for libations and poetry readings with a Moroccan flair.
3. The Spanish Stable Owner & the German Trail Guide
On Sunday morning, we left the hostel in search of a bus to Dilar. In Dilar, we walked to the highest point in the city to find Hotel Zerbinetta and, behind the hotel, Los Alayos stables. After ascertaining that, out of the five of us, Michelle and I were the only ones with experience on horses (though my experience was limited exclusively to Western), Francisco helped us mount up on Arabians in English saddles giving instructions in broken English for “light hands and strong legs.”
Men in riding tights are one of the cutest sights that I never cease to enjoy; their nonexistent butts are so tiny and adorable. Our guide, by comparison, had thigh muscles that wouldn’t quit, a permatan and chapped lips from riding every day, and some braid/twist that made her flyway curls look magical: in short, I wanted nothing more than to be her. My position on Diamante and second in the string afforded me the opportunity to express my considerable Spanglish prowess and ask her all manner of horse-related things. The best part of the entire trip (besides the view and the getting to ride English for the first time and the Francisco complimenting my boots and the sun and the mountains and the olive trees and the basic perfection of the entire trip) was when she let me lead the trail for a bit so that she could ride with Christina in the back and when she attempted to teach me how to post. And, whenever I eventually master the lesson she so kindly attempted to teach me, I’ll remember the first time I ever almost-posted out of the saddle in an olive grove in the Sierra Nevadas.
When we returned to the stables, Francisco of the Abnormally Chipper Personality greeted us. “Ah, the boots,” he cried upon hearing the news I was from Texas. He waxed long and nostalgic about his time in Fort Worth and San Antone and let me unbridle and unsaddle my horse. It broke my heart that we even had to leave.
4. The Dutch Backpacker
Returning from excursions on Saturday to the hostel, we happened to bump into a girl checking in to the same dorm room as us. A quick exchange of the usual pleasantries led to the realization that her name was Sanna, she was coming from a few weeks spent in Sevilla taking Spanish classes at the same school we’d studied at, and we shared the same heritage. We welcomed her to the hostel life and exchanged stories of learning at CLIC and life in Sevilla and then I bombarded her with questions about the Netherlands.
My grandmother came from Holland but, besides the fact that her name was Sipriana Minnema (which, according to Sanna, is a very Friesian name) and she was from Joure and we call our aunts ‘tantas’, I know next to nothing about my heritage. Apparently, Friesland is the Basque country of the Netherlands; they’d much prefer it if they were their own country but they’re so tiny that their nation would be too irrelevant to even register as insignificant.
Sanna studied Political Science in school so we discussed government and policies and had a nice long chat about America and how it might not be the great nation that my fellow countrymen, never having left, believe it to be.
“I come from a very conservative family,” I explained. “In a very conservative state in a remarkably conservation country.”
“So, how’d you get to be like this, if you don’t mind me asking?” Sanna includes in her question a gesture to our surroundings: the hippest backpacker hostel in all of Spain where we’re eating a communal dinner of paella with alioli next to the bar/shack where the mismatched bartender from Bristol has just announced mojito happy hour by squeezing a rubber chicken.
“I just got lucky, I suppose.”
And later on, when we’re talking about drone wars and phone tapping and American foreign policy and I have to admit that I really am not that educated on all of that, she gets serious. “Well, you’re here now. American foreign policy is no longer this abstract thing, it’s part of your life here in Europe. Educate yourself.”
5. The Sisters from Buenos Aires
On Sunday night before leaving the hostel, Christina and I decide to have one last drink sangria together. I’m completely out of money so she spots me the two euros, we are ladled two plastic cups full of fruits and alcohol and adjourn to the top of the tree house and that’s where we meet the two sisters from Buenos Aires.
The first has just returned from a visit to Morocco after a few months spent working for the hostel in exchange for room and board. She’s headed back to Argentina for a gig with a band there after she gives us further instruction on the differences between Spanish Spanish and Argentinian Spanish.
The second lives in Sevilla for a currently indefinite amount of time, enjoying being abroad. Her favorite place to visit was Edinburgh: “Everything is so old and classic, you close your eyes and you feel like a queen.” And she instructed us to find Cinque Terre, specifically a beach that, to access, you have to walk over a kilometre through a tunnel in the dark under a mountain. Once you reach the town, ask for the Portuguese man who won’t be there but runs a hostel of sorts that will put you up in a hammock on the beach and you’ll make up to the sound of waves and everything will seem sort of haphazard and unplanned and you don’t know how it’ll ever work out but you have faith and it always does.
6. The Lost American
The first constellation I ever found on my own was Orion’s Belt. Before that, when I would stargaze and someone would say, “Oh wow, look at the Little Dipper tonight,” I’d pretend to know what they were talking about and then maybe, after twenty minutes of concentrated studying and five minutes of them holding their hand pointing in the same direction, I might finally pick out the stars that made the ubiquitous shape.
The first time I spotted the constellation, it was the week before I graduated high school lying on a friend’s driveway. It’s a Saturday night at a backpacker’s hostel in the oldest neighborhood of an old city and I’m not a high school senior anymore but finding that constellation all on my own makes me feel like nothing has changed.
I didn’t realize it when I was eighteen but things were changing and, as in most situations of change, that meant something was ending. At the moment, I was too excited about this long-awaited discovery to notice the shift, and in the years after, I was too upset about what I lost to realize what I had gained. But now, almost four and a half years later and lying on a hammock under a treehouse at the hippest place in the world and listening to a drunk friend ramble about feelings in the worst approximation of a whisper I’ve ever heard (I was more sympathetic at the time, I promise), I couldn’t stop staring at the same constellation and realizing how far I’ve come.
And if I had known then at seventeen and three-quarters what I know now at twenty-two and a quarter, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I would stay on the cool concrete of a humid May evening with a person who was about to leave my life not for good but for a good while and I would keep revealing in the success of finding my first constellation.