Yesterday there was a morning walk under the pines, cut short by a squirmy toddler. But not before we heard doves, and saw them perched among the branches. Not before we saw the tall rattlesnake grasses, as high as my shoulder. Not before we felt dry, golden grass against our legs. Not before we heard the sound of our feet crushing crispy brown pine needles. Not before I felt my muscles working as they pushed the stroller up and down the hills, and remembered how a morning walk opens things up like nothing else.
But the day was still long afterwards. Wednesday, the middle of the week. When the heat bears down all day long, it’s easy to go stir crazy. To feel like a prisoner of the air-conditioned house. To crave an outing of any kind. But even a walk around the block or to one of the parks nearby has no appeal when it’s 100 degrees outside. When the black asphalt radiates heat that is almost visible in its intensity.
So in the evening we went to the library. The county library here is in the top floor of the Alcazar, the famous and imposing fortress that reigns over Toledo’s skyline. From the windows there are sweeping views of the city, and the wide open plains beyond. I look through the wooden shutters into the distance and imagine a watchman warning of the approach of an army in the distance in centuries past. Basil jiggles with giddy excitement at the sight of another child, toddling up to him and offering a book. “Hi” he says, and when the other small boy says nothing, he tries “hola”. I smile at the mother and wonder if she’s as glad to have her child entertained as I am, or if I should redirect my enthusiastic little boy.
After the library we went to a park. The parking garage where JJ’s parents have passes hugs the side of the hill by the Alcazar, its roof level with the street next to the fortress. There is a big square on top of the garage, and in the late evening when the sun goes behind the buildings and it finally cools off a bit, children play there. Parents sit along the edges talking and looking down at the river below, or have drinks in the café tucked in one corner. Basil watches a group of boys playing soccer. He follows two little girls riding their bikes around. And then he toddles into the play area and climbs up the slide behind a much bigger girl. I watch his cheerful attention to the other children, and feel guilty for how little he sees other kids here.
Now it’s Thursday and I can feel how things are shifting towards the end of our trip. Basil’s abuela has started saying she can’t wait until he leaves, which is her way of saying how much she’s going to miss him. Abuelo has begun to ask Basil for kisses all the time, linger longer over him at mealtime, and get jealous when we spend time with Great Grandma. JJ comes back from Barcelona tomorrow. We are going home soon, and a sense of possibility has replaced the mid-trip restlessness.
The restlessness continues, fueled by the oppressive heat that keeps us indoors most of the day. Basil still takes two naps, so that keeps us close to home too. He’s still afraid of the water, so the swimming pool is no fun. A storm finally blew through tonight, dropping rain for just 10 minutes but cooling things enough to enjoy being outdoors again. The smell of dried summer grass wet from the rain reminds me of the fog-drenched hills in Northern California right now. The curtains swoop and billow in the wind, and the air feels cooler than it has in days.
There was a visit to Great Grandma tonight. Raindrops on my bare arms as we walked to her house, a ground floor apartment down a narrow cobblestone street in the old town. She has lived there for over 70 years and her house is full of dearly loved china, photos at toddler level, and old-fashioned fans that whip around and entice small fingers to explore. Needless to say, I spent the visit managing Basil, trying to let him look and climb but not break anything. The best was opening and closing the shutter, looking out at the street below, saying “hi” to people passing by.
You parents: how do/did you manage to enjoy visits to non-childproof grandparents’ houses with toddlers? I feel like I need to plan for it like I would plan for a flight, filling my purse with snacks and entertainment. Otherwise, I spend the visit chasing him around telling him “no” like today, and where’s the fun in that?
There’s an arc to every trip here. A recognizable shape that my body knows, and my mind and heart weather. First there are The Arrival Days. Everything is bright and chattery. Phone calls to welcome us, an uncle stopping by, a first trip to the old town to visit Basil’s great grandma. Glorious quiet during Basil’s naps, and time to myself in cool morning breezes. Late nights writing with bare shoulders outside on the porch like right now. Day after day of dresses and sandals, never once taking out the light sweaters I brought.
Then about a week or 10 days in, The Restless Days hit. Suddenly I’ve been away from home long enough. I am tired of how little we do here, how it’s the same day after day. How I’m not working towards anything, and I want to be. How we get not family time just the three of us. How it’s too hot to do anything.
On the first morning after the restlessness comes, I lay down on the cool grass by the lavender and listen to the bumblebees and honeybees at work. I look up at the blue sky and feel the grass prickling my back. I play with Basil and take pictures. By 9 he’s ready for a nap and it’s too hot to be outside much longer. But the pictures of the lavender fill me up the rest of the day. Somehow their wistful purple against the unchanging blue sky captures the yearning I feel.
On Sunday the mid-trip restlessness drives us to brave the furious evening heat to walk around in old town Toledo and get frozen yogurt at our favorite place. The sun had finally left all the main plaza’s benches in the shade. But it was still so hot that I burned the back of my legs sitting down on one stone bench. It was like sitting on the roof of a car after hours of driving. We had to eat the ice cream fast because it turned liquid at the edges with each spoonful. Basil watched other children playing and turned to us for bite after bite. Then we wandered in and out of a couple air-conditioned stores looking at the sales, and I bought a light cotton white sweater appropriate for the more mild temperatures of home.
I came home a little bit renewed. Mostly from the sweet time with just the three of us. But the mid-trip restlessness continues. Today, JJ left on the first train for Barcelona, and I started making lists for my week. What to cook. What to write. Where to go with Basil when my in-laws are off doing their work and activities. It helps a little.
Later this week when JJ gets back we’ll go into the final chapter of the trip, The Last Days. There will be favorite meals made. Technology for JJ to install. Last visits to family and friends. Suitcase conversations three days out. And tears because Basil is more fun every time we come and it’s harder to say goodbye. Every trip has the same arc, the same familiar shape like an old tree outside your kitchen window. The hardest part is the restlessness of these middle days when I’m still firmly here, but wanting here to feel different.
It’s 97 degrees in Toledo, and we’ve just arrived for our annual summer visit. I haul suitcases up the stairs from the garage while the abuelos show Basil his new toys and exclaim over how much he’s changed. JJ prints his train ticket for tomorrow’s business trip to Barcelona, and I get us settled in. I hang up sundresses next to winter coats from the last trip. Stow sandals in the shoe cupboard next to an old pair of sneakers. Organize baby shirts and pants. Then we all go sit outside in the shade with cold drinks and Spanish tortilla sandwiches to talk and watch Basil play.
When you have family on the other side of the world, trips to see them become markers in the seasons of your life, like the first snow signaling the start of winter. Each Christmas, each summer, we decide on our dates. Buy our tickets. Make plans to see friends and family before we leave. Pack our suitcases. Worry over keeping the baby entertained and fed on the flight now that we have Basil. And then we do the nearly 24-hour trip from California to Spain.
The trip itself is always exhausting. Two flights, one 9 ½ hours with a 16-month old. But once we are here, and start settling into a routine, I always feel the possibility in a life lived like this. The ways that having family in two countries stretches you. It makes you cross boundaries more often. Language, culture, food boundaries. There is a way that travel makes you see yourself anew, and these family trips to Spain do that for me. They make me start fresh. Each time I go through the list of things to attend to before leaving, make the trip, and then we’re here. And while the isolation of being far from family and friends can be hard, it also makes me read and write more, and I like that. I like the distance from daily life that comes with being in a faraway place.
Now, with Basil’s milestones marking the passage of time, each trip is even more of a new beginning. Last Christmas, he had just begun to crawl. He was pulling himself up on the dresser for the first time, opening drawers, figuring out how to get up stairs. Now he is walking, exploring each room on his own, climbing up on furniture, holding his Poppy’s hand as we walk through the old town to visit his Great Grandma.
This is the first trip to Spain since I finished my degree. Another new beginning. I’m excited to write while I am here, and see where it leads me. See how the future looks 2 weeks from now when I’m home again. And thanks to Meg’s challenge, and NaBloPoMo, I’m going to share more of the process here this month. See you tomorrow!
Living in old-town Toledo is a little like living in a museum, the skyline, buildings, narrow stone streets marking an everyday connection to the past like the tapestries and tall thrones of a centuries-old royal museum. The main streets of town are dominated by tourist stores, golden souvenirs, handbags stamped with “Toledo” hanging next to fluffy red polka-dot Flamenco dresses. My father-in-law has made his living selling these souvenirs, walking around town visiting the owners of stores filled with glittering gold plates, jewelry, and long, silver swords. All traditional products from these parts, once handmade in small workshops, hammer meeting metal to pound the old damascino designs, now shipped from factories in China, assembled here.
As I drive into town to visit my Spanish Grandma, I look at the city, the Alcazar and Cathedral standing tall against the late afternoon sky. I think about how living in this museum of a town seems to go hand in hand with conservative values and a desire to keep the past alive, keep the uncertainty of present-day change at bay. Isn’t that what growing old is about, after all? They say we all grow more conservative as we grow older, working to protect what we have, pass on what we have learned to the next generation. When there’s money involved, or power, people hold even tighter, guarded and fearful of the impulsiveness of the young.
Having grown up with little connection to the past, not even knowing my grandparents, living far from where my parents were born, I’ve often felt seduced by the curves of history here, Roman bridges still providing a path across the river, castles a roof over peoples’ head. But it’s the stories that sweep me away, capture my imagination, make me wonder what kind of person I’d be if I were born in a place like this. How is it different to become who you are when so many physical reminders of the past surround you each day?
While packing for our trip home tomorrow, I listen to a podcast I’ve discovered called New Letters on the Air, an old episode from last June where Tobias Wolff talks about his book Old School. He says the book is partly about questions of identity, “how do we become the person we’re going to be”. He asks, “What part does imagination play in that?”
Wolff makes me think about the possibilities for creating who we are; he makes me feel like who we are is merely a question of the bounds of our imagination. At the same time, being in Toledo, listening to my Spanish Grandma’s stories, makes me think about how the past draws boundaries around our experience, colors how we see the present. What do you think matters more in defining ourselves, imagination or the past? How do both matter to you?
My husband is from an old city in Spain, born and raised among stone buildings and wide open Castilian plains. We flew here yesterday, and I spent this afternoon visiting his grandmother while he went to the Madrid soccer game with his dad. I never knew my grandparents, and am in love with this Spanish grandma, 91 and full of spirit and a lifetime of stories.
We talk in her sitting room, in flowered easy chairs surrounded by family photos and the sounds of heels on cobblestones below the window. She’s lived in this same first-floor apartment since the mid-1940s, between the Alcazar and the Cathedral, centers of military and religious power that dominate the Toledo skyline. She tells me about growing up here, going down to the community fountains with a bucket to get water, lingering with her friends talking about boys. Working in her family’s bakery during the Spanish Civil War, trading bread for produce with people who rode donkeys into the city from the pueblos. Going from house to house through tunnels in the walls when it was too dangerous to walk on the streets.
I am going to interview her, record the stories, write a history of her life. When I ask her, she likes the idea, goes and gets a small pad of paper and begins reading me her family history in dates; births, weddings, deaths, where people were from, full names (a mix of Spanish and French from her mother’s side of the family). When she finishes reading, with the last two grandchildren, my husband’s adopted cousins, it’s quiet, and I’m thinking about how much she’d like to write down a great-grandchild in this small family history. “Have faith” she says, as I kiss her soft cheeks goodbye, and bundle up against the cold.
And I feel it, because she is smiling, so full of life, spirited and beautiful after all she’s lived through.