Tuesday, January 12, 2016

From Sevilla to Granada

"From Sevilla to Grenada" Professor Preobrazhensky hums obsessively in Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 short story "Heart of a Dog."  The line is from a well-known Tchaikovsky tune, "Don Juan's Serenade." Preobrazhensky hums the tune because that's who he is: a man of high culture, attending opera and theatre instead of the meetings of the housing committee that's trying to appropriate his apartment. "From Sevilla to Grenada" is European civilization, all that is beautiful and valuable in the world, according to Bulgakov. In the early 1990s, when I read the story, "From Sevilla to Grenada" came to mean all that was beautiful and inaccessible, the world of knowledge and culture from which we'd been cut off by the Soviet Union's iron curtain.

The names of these towns evoke oh so many romantic notions formed on misleading cultural stereotypes. (Don Juan, the trickster of Sevilla, is such a trope in Russian culture, a burrowing from Spain long detached from its roots and used by countless writers from Pushkin to Vysotsky through A.K.Tolstoy who wrote the play that formed the basis of Tchaikovsky's serenade.) What becomes apparent traveling from Sevilla, through Cordoba, to Granada is to what extent the European civilization in these parts is built upon the remnants of the Islamic kingdom Al-Andalus; so much so that a thousand years later the main attractions in these towns are the old Moorish buildings that have been built upon and re-purposed but never quite destroyed. Cordoba fell to Christians in 1236, Sevilla--twelve years later, and Granada held on until 1492. Today it takes about two hours to drive between these cities, a convenient triangle for tourists with a baby napping in the back seat. We brought our own car seat with us, and this part went perfectly according to plan: each time we got on the highway, Bowie fell asleep and slept until we rolled into the next town.

Road tripping!

On his blog, Dave outlined the highlights of our road trip. The two hour naps were about half of what Bowie needed, and most of the days we weren't able to provide the other half. Whatever museums, palaces, mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals we wanted to visit had shortened their hours for the holidays, and Dave and I also needed food, coffee. Bowie humored us most of the time. Only when we got to Granada, his need to sleep outweighed all else. We have just finished our morning rituals, getting dressed, taking the medicine, tinkering on our devices, and Bowie yawned so hard and so plaintively that we relented. Instead of going out for breakfast, we returned to bed and took a nap.

Somewhere between Malaga (where the ocean scared him) and Sevilla, Bowie developed a feverish love for running water. Be it in a hotel sink, at a Moorish fountain in the Alhambra, a medieval open sewer in the middle of cobblestones, he wanted to get close to it, to touch it, to taste it, to figure out where it was going, to capture it with a cup or a glass. Several of the hotels greeted us at the reception area with carafes of drinking water flavored by fresh fruit, and at our comings and goings Bowie asked for this water, dunked his hands into the glass, licked his hands, drank more, tried it with his hands again, spilled it all over himself and the floor. What a wealth of joy and information captured in one carafe of water! (One of the hotels also provided an aperitif of anisette, a treat for mommy. On our last morning in Granada and in Spain, mommy also got to enjoy coffee with a cognac. A perfect morning drink, it wakes you up, smoothly.)
Bowie studies a glass of water

The highlights of hotel-living: a massive nativity scene under the floor of a hotel lobby

We flew home through Paris, where we stopped for the night. Dave and I have a history of funny overnight stays in Paris; the highlight of this one was seeing Marie Houzelle. She played along when we proposed this late night middle-of-nowhere CDG meeting, and as we collected all of our ten pieces of baggage (the number of bags had started out sanely in San Francisco and grew unreasonable during the road trip), there she was meeting us in the lobby! I've written about Marie's novel Tita, and now she says she's days away from finishing edits on a new novel--something to look forward to this year.

And then--and then--some number of hours and a few unsatisfactory naps later--we were entering our home in San Francisco. The cab dropped us off on our street. The look on Bowie's face was that of recognition, yes, but also of wonder and a kind of disbelief. Was it possible that he was recognizing the garage door, the tree in front of our house, the front steps? On a Saturday, our neighbors who had seen us off on the trip two weeks earlier were greeting us and welcoming us home. He knew these people. He knew this house. Was Bowie dreaming this? Or had his adventures up to now been a dream? After waking up in four different hotel rooms in the space of two weeks, was it possible that he actually had a place of his own to come back to, a home?

We entered the hallway. Our building is over hundred years old, and after two weeks away it develops a very particular odor--Dave and I picture a prim Edwardian-era lady who in our absence moves in with her scents and powders. It was this concentrated scent that hit home with Bowie, and then seeing his room with his play rugs and toys. He took in the impossible familiarity of it all--and cried. Bowie was home.

He had a good cry, and then wanted to get down to the floor. Bowie was home. There were blocks to stack, books to organize, boxes to unpack. He was suddenly oh so very busy.
Feeding his pony with a carrot

Sunday, January 3, 2016


Dave, Bowie, and I met the new year in Fuengirola, a resort town in Spain, on the Mediterranean coast. With us was my brother Kostya (Konstantin for the English speakers). Our friends Olga and Ron made a feast of paella, with rice meticulously cooked in broth to perfection and the freshest local seafood. Just before midnight we took champagne and grapes out onto the town square, where the locals and expats and tourists were assembling.

Once our phones announced midnight, we started placing grapes into our mouths, one a second, for the first twelve seconds of the new year. We’d been hearing about this Spanish custom. A few seconds into this, the church clock rang, and the locals started counting the seconds out loud, in a choir, and eating their grapes. We were almost done with ours but gladly took the opportunity to slow down. Then, instead of the fireworks, the town’s official started shooting firecrackers. Bowie, attached to Dave’s chest in a carrier, handled it well: he startled, but didn’t cry. Olga and Ron’s six-month old baby was also awake, and he came out of his stroller to dance and sway in his parents’ arms.

One of the local bars broadcast dancing music. Many families were out and groups of friends with champagne and beer and cigars and cigarettes. A heavily tattooed Englishman whom his friend called John-O and we heard "Turbo" tried to give high fives to the babies and then pinched them on the cheeks. A local family gave out rattles. Two years earlier, Olga, Ron, Dave, and I celebrated a coming year together in Bangkok, dancing and drinking on top of a skyscraper into the wee hours of the night. Now our babies “danced” around each other and tried to poke each other in the eyes.

Dancing with uncle in the square


Kostya wanted to take a middle of the night swim in the Mediterranean, and I entertained the idea of putting Bowie to bed and then skedaddling to the beach. Once, a few years earlier, on a New Year’s trip to Israel, Kostya and I had shared a late night swim in the Mediterranean—not a bad thing to turn into a tradition, I thought. But this night got a little too late too fast and we were a little too tired, so we let it go. Sometimes just having the idea is enough. The thought alone felt fun and irreverent.

Thanks to Bowie, I’ve been carrying this sense of joyful irreverence all throughout this trip to Spain. We’ve been here for a week already, with another week to go. Kostya returned to Vienna on the second of January, and we took our leave of Olga and Ron and started a road trip in Andalucia. Our first stop is in Sevilla, with Cordoba and Granada coming up on the itinerary. A road trip, across Andalucia, with a thirteen-month old? Why not! It looks similar enough to California and there’s a mountain range here called Sierra Nevada.

Bowie wants room to run around. He’s not walking yet, but he wants to cruise and crawl and climb over things and play hide and seek. On the floor, he'll hide around the corner of a hotel bed and sit there, quietly, until either Dave or I find him. “There’s Bowie!” He laughs. Then, he shoos us off to another part of the room and goes back into hiding. “There’s Bowie!” He laughs. In Fuengirola, Olga and Ron took us to a couple of lovely playgrounds where Bowie tried going up the slides and down the staircases. He spent a couple of afternoons on the beach, eating sand and throwing clumps of sand on his head and hair.

"What's that?"

Let's go UP a slide


What Bowie resolutely does not want to do is sit tied up anywhere. He does not want to ride quietly in his stroller. He does not want to sit in a high chair at a restaurant and listen quietly to adult conversation. He does not want to be in restaurants at all, especially the busy and the noisy ones, where we don’t let him get on all fours and explore on his own. He’s been showing his displeasure by loud shrieking, wiggling, and crying. At best he tolerates being in mine or Dave’s lap, staring at lights, into windows, flirting with other babies and little children. He wants to know what everything is. At one restaurant we received a reprimand from a child psychologist. “Are you from Russia?” this woman asked Dave, having overheard me speak to Bowie in Russian. She spoke English, but with a Nordic, perhaps German, accent. “A child should be in a hotel room, resting,” she told him. “I’m a child psychologist and I don’t care about humans, I only care about children. The restaurant is too noisy for children.”

Backup at the hotel, after a late night game of hide and seek, we received a handwritten note from our neighbors slipped under the door. It said, “Idiots.”


Every morning, Bowie wakes up with a question on his mind. His eyes barely open, he extends an arm and points a finger, “Eh?” Which I take to mean, “What is that?” “Window,” I say, “A curtain. A light. Another light. A smoke detector. An alarm clock. A telephone. Blanket. Pillow. Daddy. Bed. Window. Light. Wall. Our bed. Our luggage. Our clothes. Window. Light. Telephone. Daddy. Daddy’s nose. Mustache. Mouth. Lower lip. Beard. Teeth. Large teeth, the easier to eat you up, baby.”

Bowie’s been nursing a lot. For a week, he hardly ate any solids but a few pieces of bread. After the new year’s feast of paella, he’s been trying more foods. Baby eels. Pasta with meat sauce. Rice in squid ink with calamari. That last meal went down particularly well because Dave had him in the carrier and we ate at a bar window, outside, standing up, so Bowie was sort of on the move throughout the entire meal. He could also eat the rice straight from the table, just shove it into his mouth with both hands. Because we were outside, the waiters didn’t care when half of the rice ended up on the floor. Nobody rushed in to clean it up. Picture baby whose entire face, hands, and sweater are covered in squid ink, and who’s got a grain of rice stuck between his eyebrows, and more rice in his hair. Picture his proud parents: baby’s feeding himself. Professor baby.

For another perspective on the trip and great photos, check out Dave's blog.