As I am between novels, I thought it time to resurrect my blog. Going back to my motto of ‘Too much world, too little time (and money)’, I thought I would try my hand at some travel writing, something I have long wanted to do, but never felt that I had any travel anecdotes interesting enough to share. That is, until I decided to plumb the depths of my memory.
I took my first solo trip at the ripe old age of forty something. With no immediate family to lean on or extended family or friends to offer a welcoming bed, it was just me, myself and I in the city of Granada, Spain, ostensibly to do research on my second novel. It was a city with which, I have to admit, I was familiar, one I had visited only the year before during a driving tour of Southern Spain, so perhaps a bit of a cheat. On that occasion, I had travelled with my husband. Our interests had been similar in intent but vastly different in scale. While his only goal was to relive an experience of sleeping in a modest Alcazar (Moorish castle) in Zafra, Spain, my grandiose sights were set on discovering my next novel amongst the sculpted stuccoed halls and sprawling gardens of Granada’s Alhambra, the most famous of Spain’s Alcazars.
Fast forward a year, and with an ambitious story mapped out in my head, I was busily scribbling notes and taking pictures of not only of the Alhambra complex, but of Granada itself. On the day in question, I had just finished a tour of The Royal Chapel, an elaborate repository for the remains of Spain’s most famous monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, the warrior couple responsible for expunging the Moors from Spanish soil, shuttling in the Inquisition to root out those Moorish and Jewish conversos who secretly clung to their old beliefs, and sponsoring Columbus’ voyages of discovery and annihilation. With my head still reeling from the ostentatious display of Catholicism that is uniquely Spanish – countless images of the Madonna and her Son, elaborately carved marble tombs and painted statuary crowding the gilded high altar – I plunged from shadowed lighting into the bright glare of a mid-afternoon sun, to join the swell of foot traffic wearing a path between the Chapel and the even more splendiferous neighbouring Cathedral.
I had taken only a few steps, when I heard a voice call out and someone stepped into my field of view. One quick look told me all I thought I needed to know. It was a middle-aged gypsy woman and she was trying to get my attention.
Now, my personal experience with gypsies was almost non-existent. On my previous trip, I had missed an opportunity to visit the popular gypsy flamenco evening shows for reasons best not divulged. As such, my only interaction with this marginalized group was at a bar one evening when I gave an aged gypsy woman some small change. Trying to refuse the sprig of rosemary being pressed upon me in exchange, I was told that I had to take the proffered herb, so that no one could accuse the woman of being a beggar.
I had however, heard numerous stories from well meaning friends and acquaintances about thieving gypsies and the need to be on the lookout for gypsy cons and scams. So, my plan, especially as I was traveling on my own, was not to engage anyone I identified as being a gypsy.
In this vein, I refused to make eye contact with the woman, even after she persisted in trying to get my attention and who, from the corner of my eye, seemed to be pointing at my backpack. Walking as fast as I could, eyes straight ahead, I finally rounded a corner and was relived to notice that the woman had given up pursuit. As I continued to walk, I began to replay the scene in my mind. Something about the woman’s insistence to get my attention made me slow my pace. Belatedly, it occurred to me that her expression and her body language was more that of someone trying to tell me something, as opposed to trying to sell me something.
I swung my backpack off my shoulder, one that closed with a drawstring and flap as opposed to a zipper. The sight of my wallet sticking out of a partially opened backpack, sent my mind into a tail spin. I usually tried to stuff my wallet down to the bottom of my pack and could only think that when I paid the entrance fee to the Chapel, I had not taken care to do just that. This then, was what the gypsy woman had been trying to tell me, that my wallet was in danger of falling out of or being plucked from my pack.
In that instant, a mantle of shame and remorse settled heavily upon my shoulders. As a visible minority in both my home and my adopted countries, I had more than a passing acquaintance with the sting, imagined or real, of prejudice. With a heated face and a trembling hand, I pushed my wallet down and properly retied my bag. Then I turned right back around and retraced my steps, hoping to see the woman and offer my thanks. But she had disappeared, swallowed by the flow of tourists, leaving me to think about how she must feel, how her attempt at doing a good deed had been thwarted by my own prejudices.
This encounter inspired me to do some research on the Roma, or Gitano as they are known in Spain, to educate myself about this little known and much maligned race, nowhere more so than between the pages of fiction. And after what I learned, I made a promise that, to atone for my insensitivity that day, I would have a sympathique Roma character in my novel, to try and share what I had learned of these people and their plight. As it turned out, in my second novel, Dreams of the Alhambra, I have no less than three secondary characters who are Roma. And while some of the interactions may seem stereotypical, I have tried to use plot and circumstance to weave their beliefs and history into my story.