La Ultima Noche

Hey kiddos,

I’m working two jobs and spending the rest of my time missing Spain and my friends and my teaching gig. Life has been lame and uneventful compared to what I was doing just a few weeks ago. People here have moved on and out of Wheaton, leaving me in this weird position between college life and adulthood. A nearly 23-year-old working at Banana Republic as all her old high school buddies come in and buy suits and plunk down $350 on their credit cards. I can barely afford to go out to lunch with friends, leaving me at home catching up on the shows I missed last year and freelancing for some extra cash. It’s all been a big adjustment, but it’s getting easier. I’ll probably be 100% by the time I leave again September 8th. The good news is Kike is coming in a few days to visit, and I’m getting used to the whole growing up thing.

I’ve been bombarded with questions of what I’ll do once I finish next school year. The fact is, I don’t know. That’s a long time from now. I’ve got plenty of ideas, but for now I’m actually happy with the freedom I’ll have and the big possibilities I could come across.

#### – like in a press release! thanks, j-school!

The real purpose of this blog was to share my last night in Spain with you. i could sense a story coming out of it as soon as I got lost in the crazily narrow streets of the realejo neighborhood of Granada. I’d share the version of it, but it SUCKS. I’m thinking i may rework it and submit it to another place for money…

On my last night in Spain, I was craving jamón Serrano.

When the dinner hour arrived, the streets off of Gran Vía were swamped with hungry travelers and natives, eager to grab a few tapas and a glass of sherry or beer. Granada is one of the few places where you can order a glass of just about anything and receive a free snack. Refusing an offer to eat with other backpackers, I headed to Calle Almireceros off of Plaza Nueva to a chain restaurant called Bodega Castañeda, recommended by friends. It had all the hallmarks of a Spanish bar – wait staff dressed in grease-stained white shirts and black pants, bull heads on the wall and discarded napkins and cigarettes on the floor. The was no shortage of ham legs hanging by the hoof from the ceiling.

I pushed my way up to the bar like a true Spaniard and ordered a beer. A younger waiter with greasy curls served me a frothing glass of Alhambra beer and followed it with some olives and a few slices of bread topped with a thin layer of ham and hard cheese. I gulped both down, ready for a second glass and a second tapa. The bar was starting to clear out, so the waiter told me I could choose whatever I wanted as my dish. I picked ham croquettes the size of jumbo eggrolls and told him to bring me a lamb fillet while he was back in the kitchen.

The second beer was gone before the food came, so José Manuel pulled out a wine glass and a bottle of a delicate tinto from La Rioja, Spain’s foremost wine-producing region. “You’ll like this one,” he told me as he produced the fillets and the croquettes. While I prefer beer with my meals, the wine was going to take me longer to finish, keeping me away from my bed for a half-hour more. José Manuel had nothing to do but clean some silverware and dust the barrels of sherry behind the bar, so we started up a conversation of our whereabouts and why I was in Granada by myself on a Monday night. When my wine glass got close to empty, he pressed his index finger to his lips and poured me a clandestine glass. We talked for three hours.

Two beers, three copas of wine and a full belly later, my eyelids were beginning to droop and my watch hands crept towards 1 a.m. This was hardly a late hour in Spain, but it was time for bed. José Manuel came around from the back of the bar and handed me a small card with the restaurant’s name and his own printed on it. After the customary kiss on each cheek, he looked me in the eye and said, “Hasta luego. I’ll see you soon.”

“Hasta luego,” I replied back and teetered toward the door. Perhaps I’d come back, but perhaps not. To me, it seemed curious that he or any Spaniard would not say goodbye, but rather a hearty see you later. I remembered my years of textbook Spanish telling me that the proper way to say goodbye to someone was using the word, “adios.” But in Spain, I discovered when I studied there in 2005, days would pass without hearing the word. I asked my host sister, a wonderful woman named Aurora, about this. Her explanation was simple:

“You see, the word for goodbye seems so final. Here in Spain, we say hasta luego, see you later.”

When I left her home a few weeks later, we said goodbye using those two words because I knew I’d be back. Twenty-six months after I left the first time, I moved Spain for a job teaching English at a public high school outside the fabled Sevilla, capital city of the Andalucía region.

After arriving in Frederico García Lorca Airport nine months earlier, I was spending my last night in Spain in Granada, a city that sits high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Catholic Kings Isabel and Fernando retook the city from Muslim forces in 1492 and successfully merged local Muslim culture with their own, making Granada a lovely and historical city. I’d traveled there several times, walking to streets of the Albaicín, listening to the fountains in the Alhambra palace and admiring the street displays on Gran Vía. But on my last hours in Iberia, I found that it was the people of Spain that had brought me back in the first place – not the art or the history or the job.

The following morning, after noisy roommates and an anxious mind kept me from a good night’s sleep, I awoke to a cool morning. The breakfast nook was empty, save for the heavy snorer in the loft above it, allowing me to enjoy toast with a rather thick layer of nocilla hazelnut chocolate spread, a three-day old paper and a chilly sunrise over the Sierra Nevadas. Purple and blue hues blended into mountains still covered with a thin layer of snow. The cathedral stood motionless next to an empty Gran Vía. I took a deep breath as if to prepare myself for an inevitably long journey back to Chicago as I descended the heavy wooden stairs to the lobby.

The wooden stairs creaked as I descended them toward the lobby. First, my laptop was slung over my shoulder, hitting my hip bone uncomfortably. I pulled on my backpack, covered the dust collected below my bed in Sevilla, grabbed my red bag that my students in Olivares called “La María Poppins” because of its size and finally tugged my rolly suitcase out the door of the hostel. The cold air stung my face as I blindly navigated the narrow streets and endless steps toward Plaza Nueva. The square constitutes a wide space sandwiched in between the twisting alleys of the Albaicín and the Río Darro, home to luxury hotels and kebab stands. I had two options: ride a public bus with a year’s worth of belongings and souvenirs or pay for a taxi.

I had euro to spare and could barely walk with my luggage, so I tapped on the window of the first taxi waiting for me at the stand. The silver-haired man awoke with a susto and was so frail, I thought my backpack might tip him over.

¡Buenos dias, guapa! Where to?” he asked, voice rich and ringing.

“Al aeropuerto.” The words cracked. I sat in the back seat of his taxi, inhaling the familiar smell of Spanish men – cigarette smoke and laundry detergent and a little bit of sweat. I stared out the window, passing small cafes and ATM machines – the most abundant places along Spanish streets. Sighing the way Muslim ruler Boabdil did as he looked upon his beloved Granada one last time, the cabbie sensed my mood and broke the silence.

“Not from here, are you?” After nine months, my lazy Andalusian tongue had fooled Spaniards into thinking I was from the coastal province of Cádiz.

“No, from Sevilla,” I said, recounting my journey from Chicago. Though the man was born in a gypsy cave in the hills outside Granada and had lived in the city nearly all of his life, he had a strong connection to my adopted town of Sevilla: flamenco.

As it turns out, this man was a former flamenco artist. I don’t love flamenco the way Andalusians do, nor was I born knowing how to perform the taconeo (foot-stomping) or twist my arms sensually around my body, but I inquired further. Though his legs no longer allowed him to dance, he continued to sing and compose poetry about his native land. He was happy to share his work in the form of prose and song. The meter climbed up euro after euro as the driver inched along the back roads to the airport, but I was sitting front row to a rare performance. His words painted the Andalucía that I had fallen in love with – hills dotted with olive trees, mountain peaks nearly touching the sky, pristine beaches rolling out to the Mediterranean that once welcomed explorers and boats full of riches from the New World. He looked away from the road and asked me my name.

“Cat,” I replied, never asking his. His tales continued, though this time he added my name and my story to the discovery and development of Al-Andalus, the Arabic name for the region. I was completely mesmerized.

As the poet helped me reload all of my suitcases onto my back at the airport, I gave him his well-earned 20 euros and all of the change in my wallet.

“Thank you very much,” he said, squeezing my arm. “Hasta luego.” The chances of returning to Granada and having an intimate performance with him were impossible, but it seemed that the finality of “adios” was too heavy for two strangers.

In a daze, I checked in, requested my window seat and opened a book in the waiting room. I had two hours before my flight left Granada in route to Madrid, and I didn’t want to think I was leaving Spain for three months. The only reason one of Spain’s seven million tercera edad members caught my attention was because of the luggage carrier she used to run over my foot. I yelped in pain as she lowered herself slowly onto the plastic benches. I returned to my book, but like any Spanish person, María Luisa was ready to tell me her life story with an armful of bangles accompanying her song-like words.

After she had finished telling me about her bout with cancer, losing her youngest son to an illness and the marvels of her home-brewed coffee, I helped her through security. This meant constantly reminding her that her watch and pocket change would sound the security alarms and reaching my hands through to guide her thought the metal detector.

She told me how grateful she was before complimenting my Spanish. She, like the taxi-driving flamenco, was a life-long citizen, and told me more tales of her young life in the city. She asked me if I liked Granada.

“Oh, of course!” I told her, recounting my six previous visits.

She silenced for a bit and looked at me intensely. “I can show you the real Granada. You know, the one beyond the Alhambra and the Albacín. The Granada us natives know.”

She pulled out her address book from amongst several gossip magazines. Instructing me to write down my phone number and email address, she said, “When you come back, phone me. You can come to my home and taste my coffee and I will show you around Granada. Then you’ll understand.” The final boarding call sounded, and I accompanied María Luisa down the gangplank and into her seat.

“I do wish we could sit together!” she whistled as she plopped down in her seat. “Have a wonderful trip home and do call me when you’re back!”

“Have a fantastic time in Tenerife, María Luisa. Hasta luego,” I replied, confident that I would.

As I waited for take-off, I thought of all of the people I’d met in that short stay. They’d each reminded me of the things I love most about the country. There was José Manuel and his over-hospitality that brought me back to the days I spent as a student in Valladolid and his Spanish attitude on having a good time. Every drink in Spain is the “penúltimo”, the second-to-last. I thought of the taxi driver and how his words and images embodied the artfulness of the people from a city where Antonio Machado and Frederico García Lorca drew inspiration. Spanish cities are constructed on history and artwork, intertwined so seamlessly. María Luisa became the face of Spanish people and their open, happy nature. The plane taxied down the short runway and lifted its nose toward the sky. I took a deep breath and looked down at the Andalusian plains and the Sierra Nevadas before they disappeared under the cloud cover.

See you later, Spain. Hasta la próxima.

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

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