A Series Set in Spain
My summer in Tucson was fast—six weeks, un mez y pico—and I’ve already returned to Madrid. I write from a new, more expensive balcony overlooking outdoor tables with yellow umbrellas. As the sun drops behind buildings people emerge from their homes for beer and evening chats—what I missed most about this place. Back in Tucson, I felt the comforts of home but I felt like a visitor. I was content and bored and bicycling, mostly. It was the home, the neighborhood, the city where I grew up, yet I was new. My parents showed me the hip spots and I realized the life I’ve chosen makes me a constant tourist, even at home.
After two years, I have made place in Madrid and I did it on my own. The level of discomfort I willingly put myself through—the hours spent speaking Spanish with strangers—have made Madrid feel more like home and for that I am proud. During the summer, my stuff—winter clothes, Frisbee, a trash bag of sheets—was stored in friends’ pisos, shoved under beds and jammed into corners. My bicycle rested in the cool basement of VivaBicicletas. My cactus sat in Mario’s sunny terrace. I missed these things and the people who cared for them. I returned two weeks ago and had a couch to sleep on and American treats to deliver.
When I ask my Spanish students if they have plans for the three-day weekend, most respond like this: “I go to my village.” My mind illustrates a remote scene with huts; however, “my village,” mi pueblo, refers to the small town where their parents or grandparents grew up. It’s a place you’re assigned to but has always been yours. It’s a rural town where you have childhood friends with whom you share memories but not necessarily life paths. As a child, you have the freedom to run around, ride fast, catch things. It’s a land you know well, but never stop exploring.
In the chaos of city life, or just life in general, your village remains unchanged and waiting for you. When the crowds of Madrid begin to wear, you can retreat to your other home or your grandmother’s home, where life is slow and silent. Villages become especially appealing in the summer when Madrid and those unfortunate enough to remain there roast. Only big stores and rich people have AC. The rest of us sweat.
In Madrid, I’ve recently started hanging out with a guy my age named Mario, the dude who babysat my cactus over the summer. We ride bikes, have picnics, drink beer. At the beginning of July and after countless sticky days, we got to escape at a faraway lake and then to Mario’s infamous village. I was ecstatic.
I bring bocatas, sandwiches but American style with more than two ingredients, and Budweiser. We jump, swim, and shout until the sun slips away. We reluctantly retreat to the car. My giddiness builds as the clouds darken and we wind our way to Sotalbo, Mario’s village and our home for the night. From Madrid it’s two hours by car to Sotalbo. From Avila, the big city nearby, it takes 20 minutes, but relatively regular buses only run on Fridays. Sotalbo has a population of 228, but only about 80 people live there permanently. His grandmother is from Sotalbo and the house is hers too, which, according to Mario, “makes her the queen!”
On the way to Sotalbo, a huge storm creeps over the sierra. Sheet lightning streaks the sky and illuminates the silhouettes of surrounding mountains. We push onward in our clunky VW van. Mario stays focused and calm in the driver’s seat. I sit barefoot and cross-legged with wide eyes, my face against the glass. We count the seconds between flash and rumble. Three seconds per kilometer. He has never seen a storm like this in his village and I think this must be the first one in a very long time.
We pass pueblo after pueblo and finally encounter a sign reading “Sotalbo.” A rickety rock wall divides the road and a row of trees that drop jagged shadows onto the asphalt with every flash. These trees were there when Mario spray-painted the wall opposite them. His cousin, who also painted graffiti, taught him how to draw a stylized mushroom with eyeballs, which was their symbol and what he chose to paint on the wall. It was an effort by 16-year-old Mario to replace the hodge-podge graffiti before him. He painted it “properly,” as he says, and “everyone loved it.” Even before passing the next major site in town, the only bar, I sense this place is sacred for him, so I observe, listen, and comment with care.
“For most people it’s the place where their parents have grown up. They go in summer or in long periods of holidays and that’s all,” he says. “They usually don’t respect the village and they think that being from a city is cooler. For us (my family and friends) it’s our place, the place to be free and the place to relax. We have lot of respect for the village and for the old people who live here.”
We park and rush into the house where his grandmother and her sisters grew up. Noa, Mario’s village cat, greets us. The home feels large and lived-in with grandmotherly details—oddly shaped pillows, tiles with painted birds, and hats as décor. This home has rooms, beds, and toothbrushes for everyone. It doesn’t have the dust of a vacation home because his family returns regularly. “If I don’t go to my village at least once a month, I feel weird,” Mario tells me, “It’s the place where I feel that belong. I basically grew up here. It means everything to me. I can do whatever I want or just do nothing and everything is fine.”
We eat a Spanish tortilla his grandma packed for us with bread, always with bread, and he tells me stories of coaxing cats and calling the mayor. We packed our own food, but the fridge has milk and Coke and manchego cheese. In the summer, a man sells fruit and vegetables from his truck, announcing over the loudspeaker: ¡Ha llegado el moreno señora!, tomates, calabacines, cebollas. ¡Vaya melones que traigo señora! El moreno, el moreno...—“The brown guy has arrived, woman! Tomatoes, zucchini, onions. I brought melons, woman! The brown guy, the brown guy.” For special products, you have to call el moreno ahead of time. For the basics like milk, eggs, and olive oil, you go to the local estanco.
The bright morning means little errands for Mario—delivering documents, watering plants, saying hello to those he passes on the way. Everything seems grander in daylight. This tiny community has vegetable gardens, a pool, and a soccer field. White, worn houses with wavy ceramic roofs and porches fill Sotalbo’s center while crumbling stone features, shed-like buildings, and short walls give this pueblo a sense of history. Its location beneath the mountains and the expanses of untamed acres make this place wild and eager to be explored. Without an American equivalent, “the village” feels novel. I am the rubia in town and everyone knows it. We wave to every person we see as we loop our way out of the village and head towards a denser place that we call home.
I call Madrid home. I call Tucson home. I have two homes and no homes at all. In each of these cities, I am a stranger and I am a resident. I am a lost gringa without a village to anchor me to a history, an identity, to my family. I am not the only one. American kids get kicked out of the house. Spanish kids are encouraged to stay. Americans value leaving. We leave behind loved ones and lovers. We start our lives in faraway places. We struggle. We find community. We get bored and ambitious. We leave again.
Photos of Sotalbo provided by Mario Cranks.