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.