I was in San Sebastian when I took this photo.
I was in San Sebastian, with its endless beauty and tranquil charm, its plentiful pintxos and varying skies, its cute little shops that are closed for so many hours of the working day that you wonder how they stay in business until, after a day or two, you stop wondering that, you stop thinking like an American, focused on profit and how to maximize it, and start thinking more than a San Sebastian, focused on how to enjoy the life you have been given.
A few days ago, I walked across the bridge from the Old Town into Gros. Once of the first things I saw, beyond the vast and unbeautiful performing arts center, was a surf shop. “Surf San Sebastian!” encouraged a t-shirt adorned with little fishes. Sweet. Then a surfer walked past me, clad in a wet suit, carrying a surfboard. Then another surf shop. Then another surfer. I crossed the boulevard and sat on the wall by the beach, and watched the whole bay of them, out on the waves, whatever the collective noun for surfers is. Communion? A communion of surfers, paddling, leaping and falling for just a few possible moments of transcendence.
I watched them for a long time, my heart a precious thrashing thing. I have always loved surfers, which is strange for a stout ungraceful girl from the land-locked midwest. And I have always loved surf music. Dick Dale and Jan and Dean, yes, but especially the Beach Boys. Even I found this odd, in my odd adolescence. My stepsister, captain of the pompon squad, fashioned a sprightly dance routine to “Be True to Your School” for the halftime entertainment of the Kirkwood Pioneers, but I preferred the slower darkness of “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl,” which is neither a tribute nor a love song, since it mentions no actual qualities of the girl in question, but masks a darkness beneath its kind melody, like a bloodthirsty cradle-will-fall kind of lullabye: “Little surfer, little one/make my heart come all undone . . .”
Sometimes in my teenage years I would select this album, “Endless Summer” (even its title a blend of promise and threat), from my collection of Springsteen and Costello, La Traviata and Beethoven’s Ninth, and weep into the false sunshine of the hideous yellow shag carpet my stepmother had chosen to adorn the girls’ bedroom. I heard the shadow in the sunshine before Brian Wilson’s mental problems became public knowledge, before I came to terms with the fact that I would have to reckon with my own on my own, since my parents considered them little more than adolescent indulgence.
And this is as far as I got in my musings before I returned to my budget pension on the boulevard above the little glove shop that was never open, so I couldn’t buy my sister the pair of driving gloves I saw in the window. I returned to my stark room and saw the stark news.
I have been in Spain for ten days now and there have in that time been two mass shootings in the United States. This most recent slaughter of children is covered differently here. There is no braying about the right to bear arms, no hypocritical clucking over “mental health,” no admonishments not to “politicize this tragedy” for those whose politics help these tragedies to occur, but no weepy hand-wringing, either. The latest news from the Estados Unidos is presented at most with a raised eyebrow, but in a straightforward manner, the footage shown between footage of the war in Ukraine and some incident in Brazil, the latest development from another country of violence.
“Let me tell you about winds,” Almasy says to Katherine Clifton as they shelter in a car from an Saharan sandstorm in The English Patient. “There is a, a whirlwind from southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives.”
I’ve been thinking about The English Patient because it’s one of my movie obsessions but also because I am in the room above the kitchen in the old house here, part of the original structure, a sheep shed, that was all that was here when the owner, Georgina Howard, bought the property. This house reminds me of the villa where Nurse Hana shelters with Almasy, now the English Patient, to allow him to die in relative peace. As the medical convoy moves on, Hana watches from a high window in the villa, chopping off her long hair into a chic bob the way women do in the movies. Disparate characters come and go, a thief called Caravaggio, a Sikh bomb defuser and his sidekick Kevin Whately (that is the actor’s name, I only ever think of him as Kevin Whately) all with their different knowledge, expertise, striving and grief. They come together for a time, and then they part ways.
Let me tell you about winds.
In my room with its view of the roof over the dining room, and then of the valley beyond, I heard the winds around dawn. The nearby wind sounded like the whoosh of the ocean. The approaching wind sounded like a rapidly-arriving locomotive. Not a whirlwind from southern Morocco – Morocco, like all the rest of the world, is far, far away – but a fierce eddy from somewhere that, when it arrived, bent the trees long ago matured into strange undulations like modern dancers.
And then it raised itself up and away.
A few days ago we had a straight, hard rain, after a thrilling prelude of thunder that purred and echoed across the valley. I grated cheese in the kitchen with a keen eye on Chef Carol, who disguises her expertise beneath a mask of amiable vagueness. What’s in the risotto? “Oh, it’s got some shallots and some . . . I chopped . . . did we say 7:15? With risotto, you have to be very precise.”
Outside, the rain stopped. Georgina thundered down the stairs and swept into the kitchen. She is not one to enter a room with hesitation but strides into the action mid-gesture with an urgency to impart, like a herald in a play. But you would not expect a docile demeanor from someone who twenty-odd years ago saw a Basque shepherd’s hut and willed into being a creative manse (or, in Basque, etxe). The central courtyard between the houses is a kind of stage, one where I would happily set a play, a romantic farce, if I wrote plays happily, which I do not.
Georgina cried, “Elizabeth! There is a word for the smell of the earth after the rain! Petrichor!” She rolled the R, so I thought the word must be Spanish or Basque. “Petrichor! From ‘petra,’ meaning earth and ‘cor,’ meaning . . . oh . . .”
From ichor, the term used to describe “the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods” in Greek mythology. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word was first used in a 1964 article written by a group of scientists, which is why we have never heard of it.
“How would you use it in a sentence?” asked one of the writers when we brought petrichor along with the risotto to the dinner table.
I couldn’t think of how to use “petrichor” in a sentence that would not also include the words “smell” or “rain,” which tells me this was not a word clamoring to be coined. I also wonder how these scientists, finding the phrase “the smell of the earth after it rains,” insufficiently pithy to their needs, fell so easily onto “ichor.” Now there’s a word I’d like to use in a sentence. “How do I get this ichor stain out of my dress?”
There is a laurel tree embedded in the patio courtyard. Georgina constructed the patio around it, decided that the tree would be part of the family. In Greek mythology, Daphne, pursued by Zeus, transforms herself into a laurel tree to preserve herself from his lust and other ickiness.
The poem The Laurel Tree by Louis Simpson contains these lines:
“Is there a tree without opinions?/Come, let me clasp you!/Let me feel the idea breathing.”
And ends with these:
“The dish glowed when the angel held it./It is so that spiritual messengers/deliver their meaning.”
Today across the valley I heard the distant drone of a chain saw. Aside from car wheels on a gravel road, as the song would have it, this is the first mechanized sound I have heard since arriving, and it was far-off and faint, could easily have been the buzz of a bee around my head. It is so quiet that the buzzing of bees is a prominent sound, along with the bells and the baaing and the birdsong. The bells of the sheep clang when they move but yesterday, I didn’t see them move. I looked up from my laptop or my notebook — I was writing on both — and there were sheep in the meadow. The next time I looked up, the sheep were gone.
I mentioned this at last night’s delicious dinner of chicken over couscous. I hear the bells, I see the sheep, I see the sheepless meadow. Someone suggested a sheep TARDIS. I suggested that this place is magical, which it surely is.
We also discussed our next Spanish destinations. I offered up Pamplona, which our hostess Georgina described as a place where she gets her licenses renewed, adding, “Pamplona is Spanish. San Sebastian is Basque.” A return to San Sebastian had been next on my agenda, so I simply canceled Pamplona, which I may do on a day trip, and added a day in San Sebastian, to make it a three-day home base. After that, Bilbao. But it is hard to think of an “after that” when now is so exquisite.
This morning’s lesson was on “character.” In our morning writing session, I filled out a character I had briefly sketched in yesterday’s assignment, “setting,” and added her to the scene. This alarmed my fellow writers when I shared — how had I written so much in twenty minutes? — so I will stick strictly to the assignment tomorrow. But in the meantime, I have perhaps the opening of a short story, if I wrote short stories. I’ve written less than a handful, and only one is published, but this place is magical, so anything could happen.
“Don’t you love her accent?” said the Irishwoman to the Brit.
She could only have been talking about me, since I was the one talking. I had been the one talking, truth be told, for quite some time, a jet-lagged dialogue fountain since the five of us had arrived at the Pyrenean Writing Retreat and been revived with a glass of wine (or several). I’d arrived in San Sebastian on Sunday, after quite a long journey that began in Astoria when I dragged my suitcase to the Q102 bus stop, took the bus to the E train, the E to the Airtrain, the Airtrain to the airport, JFK to Madrid, Madrid to Bilboa, then a bus from the Bilboa Airport to San Sebastian, where I was once again dragging my suitcase through a charming, unfamiliar town, where I was thoroughly lost.
“Is easy!” the text from the hotel read. “Cross the river to the Cathedral Buen Pastor, go straight to basilica Santa Maria and go up stairs we are in calle mari 21 very easy.”
It wasn’t easy. My phone was dying because I hadn’t had time to recharge it at the Madrid airport since I spent 90 minutes in line to get into Spain. I didn’t see any stairs and I mistook one basilica for another. Furthermore, despite several weeks of diligent study on Duolingo, my Spanish was crap. I could talk about universities and professors, drinking coffee and having a tall daughter, but I couldn’t ask for directions.
The wide avenues and plazas were full of families out to tire the kids on a Sunday afternoons and pleasantly tired, painted marathon runners. Cafes bustled.
“Perdon, hablo ingles?” I asked a passing family.
They didn’t really, but they helpfully called the hotel, and then haltingly told me that it was a 20 minute walk, which I refused to believe. (It was.) I was handed off to a man with a bicycle, and then I handed myself off to a man I stopped (“Perdon, hablo ingles?” “Yes, of course.”) who happened to be an English teacher. He delivered me to the door of the hotel, which was by then worriedly awaiting my arrival, since the call from the family. They had called me to check on my progress but of course, my phone was dead.
I was so grateful to the English teacher – Xavier, my savior – that I gave him the copy of CENSORETTES I had brought along on the trip in case any of my fellow students at the retreat wanted one. This left me with two books, THE GREAT GOOD PLACE by Ray Oldenburg, which is research for the dog café project, and THE ART OF SYNTAX, part of Greywolf Press’s THE ART OF series. And, of course, THE POWER BROKER by Robert Caro because you can’t write a history of New York City, even a tiny fragment of it, without referencing Robert Moses. One of his great works, after all, is the Triborough Bridge, which ends in Astoria. I downloaded it as an Audible book, my second-ever audiobook. It is 66 hours long and of course, it is eating up massive amounts of space on my phone. Hence, it keeps dying.
The next day, another bus brought us deeper into the heart of Basque country, and then we were collected by van and brought to the retreat, which is unspeakably lovely.
After a night of chatting, I fell into the bed of my room above the kitchen, a charming room that made me feel like some intrepid mid-century traveler, a female Patrick Leigh Fermor.
This morning we had our first workshop, with the savvy and kindly Diana Friedman. The topic was SETTING. She generously used the opening of CENSORETTES as an example of an effective setting. My fellow retreaters were very kind, but I had no copy to give them, thanks to Xavier.
But at least now I can say I have international distribution.