What are we?
That was the first thing I asked myself when I got off the train. The Delicias train station felt to me as vast as the universe. If man could create something so grand, so incredible, then what was he not capable of?
I felt physically exhausted: I had been travelling since seven o’clock that morning. I had to be at the airport early, to catch my Madrid flight at half past nine which landed at around half past twelve. After which I had to catch a train to my final destination, Zaragoza. The train journey took about an hour and a half, and I was completely drained. All I had eaten was a baguette on the plane.
Yet despite the physical fatigue, my mind felt as if it had just been born. Arriving at a new destination, to me, could only be described with a metaphor: a virgin gazing upon a nude body.
Marco was meant to be meeting me at the station, and then we were to walk it to his place as he told me it was literally around the corner. Ah but of course I had to stop calling him Marco! That was the only condition he stipulated for me if I wanted to stay with him for those two weeks: I must call him by his new, ‘Spanish’ name: Luis Ramon y Ortega Hernandez. To me of course he was simply Luis. He gave himself the name to help integrate himself into his new Spanish identity. He did not wish to live in Spain as a Maltese man living in Spain, but he wanted to live as the most ardent Spaniard.
Before I knew it he came running. Upon seeing me he stopped. “Nadia!” He shouted and grabbed me in both his arms, lifted me off the ground and twirled me around like a merry-go-round in a skirt.
“Madre de Dios it’s so amazing to see you again! Look at you, just look at you, you haven’t changed an atom!”
“I wish I could say the same to you! My God you have a beard! And you’re wearing trousers… in October, what’s the matter with you?”
And he really had changed. The way I remembered him was a nervous, unmade-bed kind of guy; unsure of himself, always smiling and laughing, who went along with everything and always dressed as if he was on holiday. But now, his shaved-hair had grown into a gelled crew cut; a black whirlpool ending in a subtle quiff. His clean-shaven face was completely covered in a smooth, thick black beard. He was dressed in a white t-shirt, a very summery pair of jeans and white trainers. It was all very summery and it was offset by a very expensive looking silver watch. He was something else. More importantly, he was someone else, entirely.
“Give me the luggage, I’ll carry it. Let’s go lets go! I only live a few paces away from here. Let’s get you settled in then we’ll go to get you something to eat; you must be starving.”
“You have no idea!”
He took my luggage and we were walking through the train station. Spain had a very distinctive feel to it, I could already tell. The wind was crisp, like the kind you felt near mountains. The people walking past us in the busy station were like guerrillas. The echo of Spanish words was very poetic, a cliché wonderfully fulfilled.
We came up to the surface and I saw the main doorways leading outside. Luis came up from behind me and covered my eyes with both his hands.
“What are you doing?”
“You have to see it this way. It adds anticipation. Like this you’ll feel like you’re going to cast your eyes on heaven.”
“I don’t think Zaragoza needs much help in looking heavenly.”
“No, but it doesn’t hurt, trust me.”
We walked a few paces forward, Luis started a drum roll and voila! I saw the wide open space in front of me like a sea of images that I couldn’t wait to dive into. It felt grander than the view from the plane because it was more tangible, more real. Across the train station I saw a lovely park and I could see the wide skyline behind it. Around us there were dancing fountains—they gave me the sensation of being small waiters serving me the starters: a taste of what was to come.
“How cliché to be welcomed by music!” Luis exclaimed. “Don’t worry you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy that park. But for now let’s hurry on home so you can get settled in. You can’t enjoy the life of a traveller when carrying so much luggage!”
The walk to Luis’ flat was a walk in a dream! We went through the Avenue of Navarra, past the Plaza de Ciudadania, turned left into Calle del Castillo and finally right into Calle Aljaferia where Luis lived. My head spiralled around me—so many new sites. The open space was breath-taking. I had missed it. He explained to me that the street was named for the palace of the Aljaferia which was a Mudejar palace just down the road. Again, he assured me, “Don’t worry, plenty of time to see everything.”
His flat was on the second floor of an understated, grey-looking building. It was a small two-bedroom apartment, nothing impressive as far as flats went, but I was taken aback by his sense of interior decorating. The flat had a medium sized open-plan room containing living room, kitchen and dining room, with two doors on either side of the room where the bedrooms were and a small bathroom near the entrance. At the far end of the room there was a balcony which overlooked the street. The street was narrow, with cars parked on either side, and at the end I could see the thighs of the Aljaferia palace that gave the street its name. So many starters!
I never would have thought Luis would be so house-proud! He spoke of his flat as if he were a painter speaking of his masterpiece:
“This is the main room, which I call ‘Black And White: Zaragoza’. Yes I title my rooms, it’s a very in thing to do. Well, I’m hoping it will be, anyway. This room is designed to capture the feeling of old Zaragoza, from its Roman days up to the 1930’s. I myself took these photographs of Zaragoza’s Roman ruins and put them up above the television to give a sense of Zaragozan theatre. In the kitchen and dining room I put up a lot of black and white photos, to give the feeling of being in a café. It’s a very trendy thing to do in a café, surrounding it with old photos of the area. I remember they did it in Malta as well, didn’t they? Do they still do it? I remember seeing that in some kazin. Then again, you’re a woman why would you go into a kazin? Anyway, I painted the room a mustard yellow hue to make the most of the sunlight that comes in. Also I think it is a very Spanish colour wouldn’t you say?” He spoke almost without breath, rushing through the ends of his words.
He also had dolls lying everywhere. All manner of Spanish dolls, from stern-looking flamenco dancers, in polka dot costumes, to proud peasants in frills. What most caught my attention was that over each door in the room he had put up street signs with the names of streets in Zaragoza. The bathroom was ‘Calle de Agustina de Aragon’, the guest bedroom was ‘Calle de las Armas’ and his bedroom was ‘Calle Milagro de Calanda’. On the main door there was the sign ‘Plaza de Aragon’ proudly announcing the theme of the whole room.
“Why did you put up that sign over your bedroom, anyway?”
“Well, Calanda is a unique little village in Aragon. A very special miracle took place there in the 17th century. A young farmer, around twenty years old, who had his leg amputated during a war used to go into the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Pilar in Calanda every so often to rub his leg with holy oil. One night a soldier slept over at the farmer’s house. His parents went into their son’s room and saw two legs under the cloak. They thought that their guest had taken their son’s bed by mistake, yet when they went to wake him they saw that it was actually their son! It was a miracle, a divine intercession by Our Lady of Pilar! What better sign to have up on my bedroom door?”
“I didn’t know you had become so religious! I remember you couldn’t be bothered about it.”
“I still can’t, believe me. But I love these fantastic stories; it helps remind us that we are living surrounded by myths. I’m not religious, but if I were to convert to anything I would convert to Catholicism; no other religion is more poetic, more colourful. To convert to Catholicism is to become a poet.”
“Ah but you forget, you’re already Catholic! You were baptised, weren’t you? I know your mother, she is not the kind of woman to not baptise her only son.”
“That must explain why I’m so poetic then. Anyway, enough chit-chat for now, go to your room and unpack, make the Armas your home.”
“Anything I need to know about the ‘Calle de las Armas?”
“Not really. It’s just an insignificant street in a beautiful city. That’s what the guest room is here.”
“Charming!” It was indeed a tiny room: just one bed, a small desk and a wardrobe. The grey walls were decorated with posters of plays and here and there were framed black and white photos of Spanish actors and actresses. Strangely, on the walls Luis had actually written quotes with a beige-like colour, from what must have been his favourite Spanish plays.
“Sleep carnation, the horse does not want to drink.”—Blood Wedding; Federico Garcia Lorca
“Money makes everything possible”—The House Of Bernarda Alba; Federico Garcia Lorca
“Do you hear the bells ring over our head?”—Don Juan Tenorio; Jose Zorrilla
“Imagination, once lit up within and unconditional of time and space, can pour infinities.”—Life Is A Dream; Pedro Calderon de la Barca.
It was extremely surreal looking around and reading all of those magical lines. It almost made me feel dizzy. I always knew Luis was different—he always had strange tastes—but his flat and the ideas behind it were something I’d never heard of before. What had he found in Zaragoza to make him so in touch with himself, and so proud to be himself, even if it was not his real self? In that flat I had found travel within travel.
We left the flat at five o’clock after I had enjoyed a shower and a quick rest. Luis had said we would go out for a walk and catch in some sights to get me orientated, then at around ten he had arranged to meet some of his friends for dinner at one of their favourite restaurants. The streets around Luis’ flat were busy and central. Full of shops, churches, and trees. Everything felt so perfect. The tranquillity of travel was to be found in the magic of the first day.
We didn’t walk too far and Luis seemed to be more interested in shopping than catching in the sights. He was like a little girl whenever he saw a shop. ‘Let’s buy this, let’s try that, lets adopt that’ . . . He was more of a tourist than I. Luis brought some crisps he had lying around the flat to keep my energy levels afloat.
This wasn’t my first time abroad by a long stretch, but it was my first time in Spain. I never really had much of an interest in Spanish culture. When I was young I was always absorbed by Italy and its world, but this city was such an eye-opener for me. I was amazed by the greenery in the streets, from large avenues such as the oceanic Gran Via, to small little streets, everywhere were trees. The architecture also surprised me: how could something so uniform and organised be so daring and challenging? Buildings that seemed to verge on Art Nouveau, at least to my eyes, seemed to be much more contemporary. The balconies, some introverted some externalized, were like stars on a clear blue day. And they were so clean! I had never seen such pure white, it was as if I was caught up in a wedding of epic proportions: I wanted to kiss and hug all the lofty brides.
Luis took me to see the bullring, which I was quite averse to as I had a lot of reservations about that whole business, but I must say I had no such reservations for the architecture of the bullring itself. To my eyes it seemed like a Coliseum built by Moroccans. Swirling arches of bright red and white, a humble-grandiose entrance that seemed to mimic the grandeur of the Alhambra or some other masterpiece from the Arabic world. Luis took some photos of me with a bust of a bullfighter just outside, someone named Villalta from Zaragoza. Luis was determined to convert me to the spectacle of the matador. To this end he dragged me into a souvenir shop near the bullring and bought me one of those hats that matadors wore during the bullfight.
“There, Zaragoza now has her first female matador. El Nadi! He was so excited. “Yes that definitely suits you, don’t you dare take it off! Let me tell you, in the bullfight the matador does everything with and for style. He is the epitome of cool. As long as you wear that hat you will be literate, articulate, cult, elegant and the bearer of a dangerous will.”
“Who says I wasn’t like that anyway?” I chuckled.
“All the better then, tonight you are yourself, but ten times more.”
I didn’t buy into all that at first. I was more interested in falling in love—with Zaragoza. He was just like a child getting carried away with a new toy. It was charming to see, however. It was also fascinating for me to witness as a psychologist. This child-like view of reality he held was beginning to intrigue me. Was Zaragoza that important to him, or did he cherish his image of Zaragoza more? I would have to pay more attention from now on.
After the bullring we walked for around twenty minutes and then made our way to the most impressive site in Zaragoza: the Basilica of Pilar. That Basilica was one of the most beautiful churches I had ever seen. Even grander than the Vatican! Its large skyscrapers doubled as towers dominated the sun and the moon and the domes seemed to be made from coloured bricks that looked more like something you’d see on Photoshop than on a church dome. The bricks were of a yellow, green and white hue and they zigzagged around the dome like a labyrinth of abstraction. Walking down that square was like walking through St. Peter’s backyard. I was in awe at the altar of man.
The Plaza del Pilar was the heart of Zaragoza. It was paved all the way through, with clear blue fountains on either end. At the far eastern end rose the spire of the Cathedral. The benches were modern, the architecture regal—it stunned me. I was also surprised by the lack of homeless people in the square, they were sights I had grown accustomed to in large European cities. Maybe they were doing something right? No, no politics, I thought to myself. I’m not in Malta anymore.
“Beautiful isn’t it? I hope it’s not too touristy for you?” Luis asked me serenely.
“No, no not at all, it’s breath-taking. You are so lucky to live here, you know. I’m really starting to see that.”
“You’re right. But you’re lucky too, you know. I envy your virginal eyes, you who are seeing this majesty for the first time. It’s a feeling I miss.”
“You think you could get bored here?”
“I don’t think there’s any danger of that. I’m simple really; it doesn’t take much to keep me happy and excited. Even now, I am seeing it through your eyes and imagining I am seeing it for the very first time as well. That will keep me going for a while.”
“Well I’m glad to help.” I said smiling.
We lingered in the square for quite some time. We got some ice-cream and sat on a very modern-looking bench. We chatted about old times, interrupted by his pointing out architectural features in the square. He was a confident tour guide if ever there was one. Before we knew it the clock on a dancing tower with a red spire said to us ‘9:45’. It was time to get a move on to go to dinner with his friends. And to be honest, I was still starving.
We didn’t have to go far for dinner. It was about a five-minute walk to a charming little square, Plaza de Santa Marta. The square was buzzing with youthful life, under the small trees and the orange streetlights life was on the go. Admittedly I was a little nervous about meeting his friends. I didn’t know what to expect. These were the first locals I was going to interact with, and I didn’t know if I would fit in, or what they would be like for that matter.
The place we were going to was a small ‘Cerveceria’—or beer house—all decked out in matador and bullfighting décor including black and white photos of matadors and the bullring we had just seen. I fit right in with my matador hat.
We went over to the table where Luis’ friends were waiting for us. They were huddled around the table by the bar, some standing with one leg on a chair, others sitting close together. At first glance they sure did seem like a lively bunch, and I felt a little intimidated. We sat down with them and Luis introduced me one by one. He introduced me to everyone as El Nadi, of course.
There were five of them there, three boys and two girls. Two of them were a couple: he was Jaime, a local working “off his parents’ money” according to Luis. His girlfriend was from Bilbao: Elizabeth or Elixabeta as it translated into Basque. She was a writer, although she “writes just for the money, which is easier than you might think”.
The other two boys, the youngest ones, were university students at Zaragoza, they were both from Huelva, which I was informed was a small village in Aragon. Pablo was studying philosophy; he was one of the quietest among the lot. The other was introduced as Fra Ramon. He was studying tourism. Apparently Fra Ramon had this little experiment going; he was trying to be “as Catholic as is heavenly possible, without actually being Catholic.”
I couldn’t help but laugh when he said that, he had a very particular charm about him, almost like that of an Evangelical preacher, which I’m sure was intentional. Lastly there was the overt bisexual Jasmina from Madrid. She owned a little boutique store in the old quarter of Zaragoza. I was glad Luis introduced me as El Nadi, otherwise my introduction would have been much too dull: Nadia from Malta, she works as a psychiatrist in a small clinic. Not exactly matadorean.
I didn’t know what flowed more freely that night, conversation or wine. I suppose the two complimented each other. Everyone seemed interested in me, scrutinising me with probing questions, their words probing like tentacles from War of the Worlds. But I didn’t mind, I didn’t mind talking about myself.
“So what is Malta like then? Luis says it’s not very modern.” Jaime asked me with his arms confidently around Elixabeta.
“It depends if you’re an optimist or a pessimist. If you’re an optimist I’d say it is pleasant. If you were a pessimist I’d say pleasantly dull.”
Everyone found it funny and started applauding. One always felt as if they were acting on stage. They put a premium on originality, imagination and wit. But they weren’t false, simply because that was their personality.
“What’s so great about reality, bambina. what’s real is passé. It’s all so… how you say… lived.” Fra Ramon retorted to my comment, in a very Italian, priestly accent.
“Let’s not talk about our usual jibber jabber; I’m sure it would bore our guest immensely.” The bisexual Jasmina jumped in.
“Give her some credit won’t you,” Luis added. “She’s not a grumpy old fart. Besides what’s boring about fantasy, am I right Nadi?”
“Absolutely. Then again I wouldn’t know much about that.”
“Surely you must have patients with all sorts of demented mental delirium? You must see it all; schizophrenics, delusions of grandeur… ?” Pablo was very frank when he spoke.
“You would think so, but all I get are patients in for anger management, which is usually court-ordered. Or worried parents complaining about their daughter’s lack of ambition. It’s all very pastoral.”
“Then make it un-pastoral! Tell me what is your greatest fantasy? I’m not talking sexual fantasy or anything perverted like that, not yet anyway, not until I know you a bit better. In a few minutes time.” Jaime asked me as he was playfully slapped by Elixabeta for his openness.
Smiling, I said, “I don’t know, really.” Just then I heard myself say those words and I bored myself into shame.
“That’s your first mistake then. You need to construct your own fantasies and live them more realistically than you live your lived life. Let me ask you this, then, what excites you?”
This time Jasmina took her turn. I was determined to not come out sounding like a nun, whilst being genuine as against all odds and despite all their talk of fantasy they were some of the most sincere people I had ever met. Even the questions they asked me; what I liked, what excited me; they never made any suggestions of their own, for that would bias my replies.
“Well I like history, you know Romans and Greeks that kind of thing. I know it’s not exactly that exciting.”
“Of course it is! Excitement is all subjective querida, you could find a toilet seat exciting and I’d say bravo! It is the most personal thing we have. The beauty of it is that it varies from each individual.” Jasmina assured me.
“Sometimes it varies from hour to hour in the same individual.” Luis jumped in.
“Alright then, so you like the Romans. You are drinking wine, which is muy Romano, no? That is your platform. Now just imagine you are in a taverna outside the Coliseum. We are aristocrats in our marvellous youth. And you, you are the young wife of a Senator. You are royalty, anything is possible for you! Remember there is no limit to life, especially the imagined life!” Fra Ramon sounded like a guide speaking of Rome in Roman times. He was clearly the master of fabrication and took it to heart.
“Let us have more wine, we cannot be Roman without wine; camarero, mas vino por favor!” Luis shouted in his best Spanish accent.
I was getting excited about the idea of pretending, and they really went all out, throwing out phrases in Latin, speaking of philosophy and Latin poetry. They were extremely knowledgeable. I understood that they had to be in order to be masters of their imagination. They were not children playing around, making animal noises of animals they had never heard of. There was something professional about their pretending; they backed it up with facts and knowledge, and it was hilarious to watch. They decreed that night the ‘Night Of Satyrs And Nymphs’. Ironically we ended up with a serious discussion on philosophy, instigated by Pablo, the Philosophy student of course.
“Epicurus was a sad little man. No one can be happy with the bare minimum in life. It’s just wrong I tell you.” Luis argued on the subject of wealth.
“Everything is made up of atoms: this is a fact. What’s more, this is the only fact that is also a mystery, and it is a mystery because it is a fact. It is open to fantasy even if it is scientifically proven.” Pablo added eloquently on the essence of life.
“Women produce children, men produce beauty. Everything is essential. Life is divided into the feminine and the masculine. The stars are feminine the universe is macho. To find the right balance within ourselves we must explore both elements.” The oracle Jasmina added on love.
Luis abruptly ended the discussions. “It is time now for Theatre!”
He said it was the ‘Roman’ thing to do, that after a night in the taverna we must watch a play somewhere. A play, “That will take us away,” he declared. It was well gone midnight by then and I protested that we would be hard pressed to find a theatre open at such a late hour.
“This is Spain Nadi! The nightlife begins in the morning. Come to the Estacion! Vamos!”
The Estacion was a theatre in Luis’ street. It was mainly a drama school but the students regularly put up plays. It was a long walk back, or at least it felt like one. I was extremely tired. It had been a long day and the wine was working its magic. The walk was made much more bearable by our company; the boys were clowning around all the way, walking like Romans, shouting battle-cries and singing Italian songs.
Jasmina and Elixabeta walked arm in arm the whole way. They wrote ‘Sappho’ on their foreheads with eye-liner and walked with that elegant Spanish pride. I pitched in by pretending to be a Roman gladiator, though ironically still wearing my matador hat.
It really was great fun. We got so many dirty looks, but no one really seemed to mind us. Above all, Zaragoza looked so beautiful in the night! The air was a bit chilly, I could feel the dew dangle from my eye-brows. The street lights were like fireflies in El Dorado. There only seemed to be two colours around us, that hazy reddish orange and the black night sky. Laughing in its midst, I felt like it was mine. I could see why Luis was intoxicated with it.
“It’s not about Zaragoza, it’s about having fun in Zaragoza.” He pulled me aside and whispered in my ear as if I were being imparted with divine words.
When we arrived the play being put up was near its end. On the night the students were doing Shakespeare as part of their studies on the famous playwright. I was worried because I didn’t really know much about Shakespeare, I had never really got round to reading anything of his. I found the language too off-putting. I did not want to seem like I was some Philistine in front of Luis’ well-read friends.
There didn’t seem to be any fear of that happening, though. When we were sat down watching the play, all they spoke about was how rubbish it was, “Not the acting but the play” as Elixabeta said. “I’d love it if it were in Basque; now that would be chic.” She whispered to me. I merely nodded in agreement as I didn’t really know much about Basque culture either. I knew that Bilbao, the only Basque city I was familiar with by name, was a city in the Northern part of Spain.
When the play finished and the actors had left the stage our fun continued. Luis and his friends jumped onto the stage romping like buffaloes. They started acting in a play of their own. It was Oedipus! The story of the young man who slept with his mother and killed his father! I studied it well for psychology through Freud’s Oedipus Complex. The audience was bewildered but not surprised. Clearly this wasn’t the first time they had done this and I thought Luis must have known the director of the school, so there was no harm in it. Seeing that, I couldn’t resist getting onto the stage and joining in. Of course I had never acted before in my life, but neither had they. It was all part of the fun of indulging in a fantasy, not merely of being Roman acting in a Roman play, but the fantasy of being an actor. I must admit thoughts of Broadway did slip in through the back of my mind. In that minute instant, I became an actress. I loved the feeling.
How strange we must have seemed, to that remaining audience of dishevelled Spanish thespians. Our voices were groggy and drunk, our lines spoken so loudly it sounded like some obnoxious song. Jasmina and Elixabeta were the faeries of the show, skipping around everyone, speaking their lines with robust eroticism. Luis fancied himself a philosopher. “Yesterday my morning of light, now my night of endless darkness!” What beautiful lines pronounced so stoically by Luis! “I dare not see, I am hiding, my eyes, I cannot bear. What most I long to see… . Unspeakable to mortal ear, too terrible for eyes to see.” They all said these last lines in harmony. A harmony of imperfect voices, it was a socialist drama at the end!
We had to stop our act half way because the director wanted to close up. We staggered off the stage and back out into the street and seeing as how we were right in front of Luis’ flat I decided to call it a night. My fatigue was drowning me into its abyss. I said my goodbyes to everyone and they were really so enthusiastic and nice towards me, I felt really flattered. They all told me we must do this again, and I said I wouldn’t miss it for the world. And I meant it!
As I finally stumbled into bed with a cup of tea I couldn’t take off my smile. It almost began to hurt. I had never had such a night, it was so different and yet so… me. Those people opened my eyes to a new way of looking at life. They made the most of everything; as long as their imagination was fertile they were content. They enjoyed small insignificant things like hats and words and God only knew what else. They used them as a child used toys; as a means to launch into fantasy. I was so many different things that night. I was a matador—El Nadi. I was a Roman senator’s wife. I was an actress! It was intoxicating because it made me feel like I could do anything. And it was only my first day in that magical city.
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