Sep 302012

I am a child;

I am standing in the corner of the courtyard;

it is dark;

I am leaning into the shadow cast by one of two dozen stone columns;

my eyes cast upwards;

I am watching.

I am watching the window above and across the courtyard . . .

. . . for whom and for what am I watching?

I wept as I walked into the palace at The Alhambra last night, the blood in my veins frozen in time, my skin pricked with memory.

I was first in, as is my way when 200 people want what I want, the same thing at the same time. I am an Aries with an Aries ascendant; that makes me first. First in.

I met the palace alone, deep in the night; all the rooms, mine; the courtyards, mine; the pools and alcoves and walls and ceilings, all mine.

For five enduring minutes, I had the Nasrid Palace to myself.

Space, light, geometry, colour, elemental, alive, the wind and sun and the bright night skies all welcome.

All welcome.

The Alhambra.

Red, feminine, in Arabic el-Hamra.

For the first time since May it is raining in Granada, home to the Red One, built by the Moors, which is nought but the Spanish name for the Arabic peoples, as part of the great Arab empire, 700 years, until it was conquered by the warrior queen Isabel and her king Ferdinand in the 1500s, for Spain and the Catholic pope holding court with the Christian god in the Vatican.

It has rained since I pulled in on the train two days ago. The cloud has been thick, the sky grey. I am visiting the Alhambra on the full moon and the sky is thick with cloud and grey.

I stand outside in the black wet night with a crowd of coveted tickets, and I am humming a tune. It occurs to me that I have an outstanding ability to hum appropriate tunes for given moments, but I do not recognise my hum.

I focus . . . it might be Grace Jones.

I hand over my ticket. I enter with my eyes raised in anticipation of the light.

The palace is exquisite. Light and beauty, beauty and light. Just as it was always should have been . . . had humanity had the common sense to build on what we already knew . . . rather than burn and burn and burn as the Christians did through those centuries and both Islamic and Christian fanaticists do now.

It breaks my heart the unacknowledged debt we the West owe the Arab peoples, their learning, their science, their philosophy, their astronomy, their mathematics – all have informed our world, and everything we have, to this very day and we do not know.

Not even most Arabs truly know their own inheritance, for if they did, they would remember . . . so . . . much  . . . more.

It is for those Arabs who do remember that my heart truly breaks, the ones who remember the depth and breadth and beauty . . . of  . . . so . . . much  . . . more.

For this I know: it is only the men of the Arab world who have shone the brightest feminine light in their hearts for me. I have never experienced this with a man from any other culture; blind love among strangers – the Arab peoples know this love.

I peer through the dust of time for distant selves and find only a child. A child of the palace. A child of the palace running through the corridors. At first, I do not know if I am a privileged child or one among the servant children. I seek the vibration in the stone . . . I am the watcher in the courtyard . . . I watch for shadows . . . catch a glimpse of coloured silk . . . the flicker of a candle . . .

Grace Jones . . . ‘strange! I’ve seen this place before’ . . . I’m not even sure those are the lyrics, but tonight the song sings for me.

Strange, I’ve seen this place before.

But then I knew that, well before I made a date with the Alhambra.

I walk to the pool and the grey sky thick with cloud parts, for just a moment, just for me.

And the silver disc of the full moon shines into the pool.

My photos are crap, this I know, but I will show them to you anyway.

For this too I know, it matters not. For these are snapshots of life in the palace in the 21st century, when she is on show for the pilgrims of the present paying homage to the past.

A young man catches my eye. Really, he is not so young. Probably early 30s. In that instant I know he is there for the same reason I am, and he knows also why I am there. The passage of time flickers in our eyes.

We are children of the palace.

In truth, setting the child and her fluttering silks aside, I am seeking the feminine in Arab culture just as surely as I track her in my own.

I could weep for beauty, for the love of beauty, enshrined in this stone.

For El-Hamra is indeed a shrine to beauty – as within, so without.

Sun rain wind and snow in harmony with the cultivated pools and mosaics and high high ceilings.

And the distant heart of dusted selves ringing through the passageways of time.


The high high ceiling

Full moon over the palace

The Fountain of Lions

The high high ceiling

Full moon in the centre of King Charles V palace (in the Alhambra)

Full moon outside King Charles V palace

Full moon outside Charles V palace walls

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Sep 282012

I am on the street, filling time. It is morning, a slow Spanish morning, where the shops are late opening and the bars are not quite filled with workers in for their coffee and pan con queso y jamon, bread with cheese and ham or a variety of other cured meats.

I am looking for sustenance, for fresh fruit and vegetables to accompany my pan con queso. I find a yoghurt-like cheesecake and wash it down with an espresso; I am vegetarian in a foreign land and white food (rice, wheat, yoghurt) is my lot, once again.

The sky above is dripping small irregular drops, and I head home to my little hostal and its pretty homemade stone floor. I am standing at the traffic lights near the Puerta Real, a roundabout of sorts, a busy intersection in the old city, when I hear toots and whistles and drums.

I look around and it is then I notice a massive police presence on the opposite corner. Oooooo, I think, something is about to happen. I hear sirens. I see police cars coming up the road. I tune in again to the drums and the whistles and toot toot toots. The pedestrian light turns green and the crowd swirls around me as it crosses the road. I stand where I am. I have, after all, nowhere in particular to go and I am more curious about the fracas than concerned about the rain falling now around me.

Buses jam the intersection, honking their horns as eventually they pass. I wonder if the cacophony has anything to do with yesterday’s protest further up the road, outside what I can only presume to be the courthouse.

I stumbled upon that one too, when I was seeking out my ticket to the Alhambra. News cameras. Protesters chanting. Police keeping the small crowd off the road. I thought they wanted to free ‘Jessica’, until I finally understood they were saying ‘judicio’.

Finally a cheer had gone up; if Jessica was not free, something had been won – hard won, and this pleased me. For liberty hard won is a victory for all people, not just a verdict that satisfies either vengeance or the perceived rights of an individual that, if truly righteous, must then be fought all over again.

I laugh out loud when a police car stops at the green traffic light and belts out its siren as if it is shrieking a chant. The whistles and drums are within sight now and I am in their path. I laugh louder – hundreds of police officers are pouring around the curved footpath towards me, banging drums, shrilling their traffic whistles, raising their arms in protest to the grey sky, blowing scratchy horns.

An explosion towards the back of the march causes me to jump and I shake my head as a billow of smoke envelops the police protesters.

The police massed on the other side of the intersection fall onto the road to meet their comrades. Small bombs mark the moment. I jump and jump again. The presence of my son Ben is beside me now, for it is the kind of thing he and we find hysterically funny – the surprise and the irony and the contradiction.

For it is funny. Yet, as I finally leave the law enforcers to their demanding rally on the steps of a beautiful building that is sentry to an intersection that has probably seen much protest over the centuries, I find there are tears in my eyes.

Liberty, fair play, mercy, whomever is in need of it at a given moment in time, is always hard won.

And I am stirred by the courage of those who claim all of the above as their right, regardless of the masks they wear, by day or night.




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Sep 282012

Tonight’s delicious paella and red

It has rained not a drop in Granada since May. Until today, the day I pulled in on the train.

Which, I must say, I actually don’t mind at all. Probably because it didn’t start to pour until I’d blindly dawdled my way through unfamiliar streets misted with morning looking for my hostel, which I found a half hour later in the cobbled back lanes of the old city.

(Great hostel, by the way – the Granada Inn.)

My great hostel – the Granada Inn

It is a pleasure on two counts to be returned to Spain, a disappointment on one.

This is the fourth, perhaps even my fifth visit to Espana in 15 years. It is a pleasure because of the familiarity, the affinity I have for the place; I am comfortable here, easy here, at home with a language I do not speak.

It is also a pleasure because the landscape is as it has always been at this time of year, for this is the only time of year I have ever visited Spain, at the turning of the wheel into autumn. The fields are dry, the stalks of the harvest past are yellow, the brown earth is ploughed and bare.

Now for the disappointment: I have long had a theory that it is impossible to go wrong with red wine. It was Spain who introduced me to this concept all those years ago, when no matter how cheap the glass, it was always worth drinking.

Last night in Barcelona, waiting for the train, I ducked outside into the bustle of evening for tapas and red wine. ‘Only gooood wine,’ I said to the waiter in a shiny modern bar. He nodded and returned with a red that tasted like vinegar.

I pushed it to the other side of the table, to let him know his vino had been roundly rejected.

He did not have any good wine, he said, when finally it came to me not paying the bill.

Last week I was in Slovenije, in a beautiful hotel in the capital Ljubljane. I ordered goooood wine and received sharp young wine. I said to the waiter ‘I would like to try other Slovenian wine as well, can you bring me a more expensive one?’

See how tactful I can be when I try?

Because in reality the first glass was crap and I was giving Slovenije room to move in the hospitality industry stakes.

Spain gets no such mercy.

This was why I asked for gooood wine straight up.

And now I am in Granada. Over lunch, disappointingly crap puttanesca sauce flooding my gnocchi, I order a gooood red. He brings me crap. No, I say, this is not good wine. It is young. What else do you have? He shakes his head, telling me ‘only this’.

‘Only this?’

Since when only this?

This evening I take myself out for dinner, popping by tapas bar after tapas bar asking if they have gooood wine. They all shake their heads.

Finally, tired now and hungry, I pop into a restaurant and ask for gooood wine. He hesitates. He reaches for a distant bottle and offers me a dribble to taste. A man who knows his customer. ‘Ah,’ I say, ‘you may serve me.’

And now I sit and wonder since when has Spain had crap red wine?

And do you know, I think I have the answer.

I first visited Spain before it was admitted to the European Union. That was when wine was good, everything (which to a tourist means food, wine and coffee) was extremely affordable, and hospitality generally was rustic and delicious.

Then I visited shortly after EU and the euro. Everything affordable was suddenly not so. Locals were furious that the prices had doubled while wages had not. But red wine was red wine and could be counted on to be worth its price.

Now we are post euro and life has settled down for the locals. Everything is seriously expensive. And the wine is crap.

I still can’t get over it – the red wine in Spain is crap.

I said that to one young man behind a bar when I was on mission for a decent drop tonight. He laughed out loud. He knew what I meant. He was happy to sell me a bottle of decent wine for 24 euro.

What am I going to do with a whole bottle of wine?

Not drink it. And not waste it at 24 euro.

Instead, I shall tell the world that Spain is serving crap red wine.

Which only raises a heartbreaking question – why the hell do we the people accept crap food and crap wine?

Do we not notice?

Do we not care?

Have we forgotten that we were entitled to so much more? 

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