Each day before sunset the people of Spain traditionally leave their homes and take a leisurely stroll called a paseo. I take my paseo at five in the afternoon and join the rest of the pueblo in their daily walk through our village, Arévalo. I descend the steps of apartment to the street below and merge into the slow procession of townsfolk wandering through the old barrios, past the abandoned mansions of forgotten caballeros, around the crumbling churches of Catholic Spain, and towards the castle that crowns the northernmost tip of the five-pointed town.
As the sun dips below the horizon, I walk behind the castle that once housed Queen Isabella, stand at the confluence of the two rivers that encircle Arévalo, and gaze across the fields of Castile.
Castile, the heart of historic Spain. It was here that Castellano, the language commonly known as Spanish, was born. It was here that Queen Isabella and Ferdinand allied their kingdoms and swept the Moors off the Iberian Peninsula in the reconquista. It was in this town that the Spanish and Portuguese divvied up the New World. And it was across the plains to my south that Don Quixote rode in search of adventure. In those times Arévalo was a thriving village well situated between the economical and political centers of power in Madrid, Valladolid, Segovia, Avila and Salamanca. That was the Golden Age of Castile.
As dusk sweeps across the central Spanish meseta, I stare into the twilight and imagine the golden days of Arévalo. I turn and face the castle and peer through the slotted apertures into the candle-lit chambers of Isabella and listen for news of the reconquista. I sneak past the sentries and pull my donkey through the shadows and past the palacios of the gentry, deferring respectfully to the armored caballeros who ride past on horseback.
The church bells ring loudly from the belfries of the town’s dozen churches, one for each of the twelve barrios as mandated by Isabella the Catholic. It’s nighttime now and the paseo is almost finished, but through the mist I descry the stream of people ahead and walk towards them. A string of lanterns holds the darkness at bay and a muted rumble of voices and laughter slips from the taverns and warms the night air. I rejoin the paseo and follow the townsfolk down cobbled streets into the central plaza of Arévalo, Plaza del Arrabal.
The men of the town are gathered here speaking to one another and suddenly I feel out of place amongst the merchants and gentlemen of the town. They discuss news from Madrid, trade with the Americas, war with the English and they gossip of their neighbors. I sense them starting at me and I look down at my worn clothes and ashamedly try to sneak out of the crowd before I become the subject of more gossip.
The Spanish are a sociable people, always gathering in large public groups and making it nearly impossible for the foreigner to make himself scarce. But tonight I have it. I escape from the plaza and round the corner to the calle principal, when an old man stops me and, not recognizing my face, inquires about my business in Arévalo.
“Buenas noches, Señor. I am a humble English teacher in the secondary school. I hail from the distant colony of San Diego, in California Alta and I am staying here for a year to teach the children of Arévalo the English language. I have just finished my paseo and I now am repairing to my abode to finish the most recent work of Señor Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote.”
“Don Quixote!?!” The viejo, exclaims. “That Cervantes is as foolish as that character of his! Why, I can’t understand why a man would spend the last years of his life writing about a buffoon riding across Castile tilting at windmills! You are a teacher, my boy, why do you read such whimsical non-sense? Surely you could be studying works of more importance, works of practical significance, works that would bring you closer to God! Would you teach this garbage to Arévalo´s children? And why would you teach them the language of our most hated enemies, the English? And…” …so on, and so on into the night. I nod my head, and at the soonest opportunity bid him farewell and slip into the night fog.
Don Quixote has a bad rap, I thought, What is so wrong about harboring romantic dreams of adventure? The mist thins as I pass the last church in the beautiful old town and walk past the petrol station and along the park into the new part of town.
To my right is a row of Franco-era apartments, many of them covered in aggressive graffiti – anarchist signs, crossed out swastikas and anti-monarchist slogans.
As I approach my building I am greeted by the stench of manure blowing across the plains from the wheat fields that surround Arévalo on all sides. My fingers, frozen cold in January night, fumble with my keys and after a minute I enter my lobby, flip on the light switch, check my mailbox and walk up two levels to my door.
It is dark and empty in my five-bedroom flat. My only roommate has turned off the heater and lights (as always), ostensibly to save money but more likely to freeze his wacky roommate to death until he moves back to California. I walk past his room, closed and locked (as always), and stick my tongue out at the green light spilling out from the television behind his door. I throw my letters on my desk – all bills, no letters from damsels in distress – and collapse on my bed.
I think about all my dreams, about traveling to foreign lands, sailing across distant seas, speaking exotic tongues, and writing words that change the world. I wonder if these dreams will come true.
Am I just hopelessly quixotic? I stare at the ceiling, but the peeling paint offers no answer. Will my dreams surrender to rigid realities and prove to be nothing more than the chimeras of idealistic youth? My roommate emerges from his cave and slams his door, loosening a flake of paint from the ceiling that falls falls falls down onto my cheek.
I sit up and survey my room and wonder once again if life in a 7,000-person town is slowly driving me insane. The piles of books heaped in huge teetering towers on the floor, a dozen corners of the room bedecked with trinkets from a dozen corners of the world, a massive California Republic flag, and a map of Europe tacked against the wall and perforated with a geographical to-do-list: pins poking across the continent, from the Basque Country to the Balkans, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, north to Norway and south to the Sahara. My dreams have exhausted my supply of pins.
Then there are the countless pieces of paper that cover the rest of my room like the crazed wallpaper of some Beatnik poet gone-mad. About half of them were a collection of poems and quotations written by my favorite authors and, increasingly, by myself. The rest of them are flashcards covered in red marker with commands (START WRITING!!!), questions (What is your book about?), themes (Search for individualism in modern society), chapters (Buying the Minsk – Saigon, Vietnam), topics (The Dalai Lama and China) and orphaned epiphanies searching for a home somewhere in the first draft of my first book.
My roommate farts, and the noise bounces through my paper-thin walls, something that would make me smile if my situation were not so bleak.
What the hell am I doing here? Am I ever going get this book together, or will I just get lost along the way? Is it even possible to write a book in such a stiflingly small town? And if I get the book written, will it ever get published?
I have no answers, only the strange faith born from the audacity of dreaming the impossible. I sit down at my desk, stare at the START WRITING!!! message on my wall and pick up a pen and paper. Dear Don Quixote, It’s January 21th, 2010 and it’s time to assess my dreams, both those realized and those still lying ahead…