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Monday, June 5, 2017

Valencia, Where the Oranges Come From: The Trip of a Lifetime, Part 9

Valencia is where the oranges come from. 
This post and the following two contain extreme instances of joy. It is hard to write about joy unironically in English. Please bear with me while I labor to find appropriate words. 

Our first day in Valencia was very glamourous. We dropped off our clothes at a cleaner. We'd only packed enough for half the trip, and had meant to get the wash done in Barcelona, or Morella, or Peñíscola. Valencia was our last chance before utter stinkage. The cleaner was cheaper than hotel service and there is no place to do your own laundry. Believe me, we looked. 

Don't cross (the line) unless the train is stopped. Valencian language in action!  
Valencia has its own language, which has a lot of similarity to Catalan, but the speakers have a much more casual approach to it. I didn’t hear much of it spoken, just the written signage and place names, even there in the language's capital. 

We decided to check out the bullring, the site where all my dreams would come true because we had tickets to a Manolo García concert there for the very next day! We always liked the train, so we flaunted everyone's advice to take the bus, only to find out that the last metro left from the bullring at 11:31 p.m. on Thursdays. That sounded much too early to enjoy the entire concert, and we racked our brains about what to do even as we traveled. 

Photo by Jessica Knauss 
You come out of the station and the bullring is right there. It’s a lovely red brick structure, and from the outside it gives a great colosseum impression. And we heard Manolo García's crew doing sound tests! Hola hola, un dos tres… We knew already that the stage would be decorated with thousands of plants and greenery—Manolo's way of calling attention to how little we see of living things in our daily lives. We could see in one of the doors and they were setting up the plants already! I started to fully realize that this thing was going to happen. We hung out a bit, and people passed by asking what was going on. "Mañana, Manolo García, sí sí!" I answered. What a thrill to have people know who I was talking about—and be obviously excited about it! 

The excitement builds... 
Our most memorable meal in Valencia happened that evening at the Burger King. It was our cheapest meal of the trip, and we were both impressed with the one guy working at the entire restaurant. His name was Gonzalo, like two of the good guys in Seven Noble Knights. He never lost his cool even though he was doing everything, from taking orders to wiping down the entire place, to making drink and dessert orders and ferrying them to tables. I couldn't take my eyes off him because he looked familiar. "He looks just like Jude Law," Stanley said. He really did. 

The next morning, we were talking about how we should rest up and when we should retrieve our laundry… and I got an email from Carmen! She told us Manolo wanted to invite us to the sound check that day and ... greet each other, if I'm translating literally. I couldn't fathom the meaning of the phrase because my mind wasn't capable of imagining something so simple and so wonderful. Of course this threw everything into nervous panic happiness mode. I wrote that we would be there and wait for someone to tell us where to go, and she wrote back giving me the phone number of a Marta, who would tell us. 

I read this as we should call when we got to the bullring, but Stanley wanted to avoid using the cell phone because of reasonable money concerns. We tried to use the hotel phone, only to find that we couldn't get an outside line. Calling people I don't know terrifies me, and doing so in Spanish only compounds the issue, and now I was using the cell phone and would have to keep it short? I screwed up my courage with a little tough love from Stanley (Do you want this to happen? It’s going to be worth it!). When she picked up, I said, “Hola Marta, soy Jessica, la chica de Estados Unidos.” She took it from there. She’s Manolo’s manager in the sense of getting his movements and welfare organized, and there’s no way anyone else in such a position would be so kind to fans. She told me to be at the bullring at 1 p.m. and call her so she could send someone to pick us up to take us inside. The emotions of these moments: surprise, joy, nerves, uncertainty blessed with a sense of adventure… We were supposed to pick up our laundry that afternoon, but we guessed we’d have to do it after we freaking met Manolo García! Besides, we were both wearing new clothes saved for just such an occasion. 

We used our award-winning-design metro pass to get to the bullring like we’d already practiced. I felt an unfamiliar sense of privilege descend over us. We were traveling into a different reality. Never before had life seemed so right, so much as if we were in the right place at the right time, as if we mattered in the world. 

Tantalizing glimpses. Photo by Jessica Knauss 
We stood at Door 19, which is across from the stage, and listened to the Spanish musicians do another sound check. (This tour had two halves, one with an American band of heart attack–inducing fame, but they must've finished already.) There were a few other people hanging around outside. I called Marta as soon as we got there and she said something about she and Manolo not having arrived yet. So we waited and hoped she would call back. Song after awesome song rang out, instrumental and sometimes with the band filling in the vocals. I held Stanley close to me and tried not to strangle him with my excitement. 

“I used to listen to this album on repeat when I was working at the Boston University library,” I explained, and then, This album was on repeat while I worked on my Iowa thesis... studying in Salamanca... and of course, all of them were on repeat in the car with Stanley! These songs define a life. Hearing them live, even without Manolo's unique voice, brought memories rushing to the surface. 

Waiting by the ticket booths. Photo by Jessica Knauss 
I don’t know how long we waited, but in the end Stanley’s phone missed a couple of calls, and finally I called Marta back (the cost, the cost!) and she told us to go to the gates near the ticket booths, and someone would come for us. We waited there a while longer, and finally here came a burly guy who was born to be a bodyguard, whose name, I would later find out, was Miguel. We came through the barrier under the astonished looks of other people hanging around, and Miguel was asking us how we were doing, and I translated for Stanley, and “bien” didn’t begin to cover it. 

Have I entered an alternate universe of happiness? 
Oh, the giddy sense of … not quite anticipation because who knew what was going to happen? We were at a Manolo García sound check! I never imagined I would be somewhere so wonderful in my life. We met Marta in the hallway (the outer circle of the bullring) and she hugged and kissed us and seemed just as nice as on the phone. Miguel walked us out onto the sand and put us in the shade on the edge of the sound and light boards setup. I was just kind of smiling at everybody and the musicians were hacking away at songs I’ve known like the back of my hand for years and years. Lots of people rushing around, testing the video monitors, and a sense of when is he coming? When is he getting here? Carmen, from the emails, came by and kissed us both and I said, So happy to meet you,” while Stanley was disconcerted beyond belief. “That was Carmen!” I told him after the fact. He was astounded that I would know her by sight, and I realized I hadn't told him that Manolo’s sister is also a recognizable performer. 

Manolo García gives direction at the sound check, fourth from left,
wearing sunglasses. Photo by Jessica Knauss 
The murmurs began—He’s here. He’s in the building. A hush descended, overlaying the music. All six or seven of my bodily senses were attuned inexorably toward joy. Then suddenly Manolo, the man himself, an honest-to-God human being with the aura of a hundred angels, came onstage, just walking in like no big deal. He hung out with the backup singers on the side while they practiced "Una tarde de sol," then weaved around the instruments in the back, and came to the lip of the stage. With a big smile I had never seen in publicity photos, he gave us a big wave. 

It was an arrow of gladness through my heart. This would have been enough, and this just the first thing. Someone, probably Marta, had told Manolo García where we were and we occupied some tiny part of his brain space. Stanley and I waved back, and our smiles would have blinded anyone who was already smile-blind. 

A short time later, the sound check was over. Guitarist Ricardo Marín came down off the stage and exited through the front door, and the other musicians were clearing out. This is hard to describe because the whole world seemed to be on fire with joy. Who cared that it was late for lunch and everyone had an empty tummy? No one. 

Where we belonged 
I tried to figure out the moment when my reality broke in two and I officially entered this alternate universe in which such wonderful things are not only possible or likely but actually took place. This may be it: before the other musicians were quite gone, Manolo came down off the front of the stage and started walking toward usManolo García braved the blazing sand wearing dark sunglasses and arrived at the sound/light boards barrier in front of us

I had been hoping for the Southern European greeting of the two kisses on the cheek, I will freely admit. But he reached across and gave us both American-conscious handshakes. His hand was so soft! Silk, butter, velvet, I’m not sure evoking something unalive is appropriate for this vital being. The first amazing eloquent thing out of my mouth was, “¿Qué tal?” (How are you?) in a pitch I remember as too high. After greetings, with a warning that his English was not up to scratch, he started right in reviewing the first letter I wrote to him back in 2008. While I was paying attention, and even responded in Spanish, describing how I was in Spain without Stanley and someone stole everything important that I had, I had trouble believing that Manolo García had devoted any memory space to my little story, but the incontrovertible evidence was right there before me in the speech, the animated expression, and most of all, those eyes. 

Normal brown eyes more than 50 percent of the Earth’s population has, I’m sure he would protest. But that’s because he appears to have no notion of his own charisma or the effect he has on people. So much sincerity. Authenticity abounded. Here was a person who transmitted all his inner workings—his soul, if you will—through those humble brown eyes. And what a soul. Existing within that gaze was like being captured and cradled in a bubble made of energy I can’t describe except to say that it felt eerily similar to a blissful, life-saving dream I'd had ten years before. Just plain fantastic. A real dream come true. Remind me to tell you about that dream some time. 

Maybe I’m just an overly sensitive fan girl. Is this what all big fans feel? They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but wow, this guy was the opposite of a disappointment. One of the lines from Campanas de libertad, from his last album, says, “Life bursting forth exultant, I'm not going to disappoint you.” Prophetic. 

When the 2008 story reached a pause, he said, “Well, that’s in the past.” His last album title, Todo es ahora, translates to “Everything is Now. Eckhart Tolle spent time in Spain, too. Those two gurus were in the same country. Imagine that hypothetical conversation. 

Manolo directed the questions at us. How did we like Spain (love it), how many times had we been (Stanley 3, me 10), and where had we been on this trip. I said we’d gone through Barcelona. Oh, those windows to his soul widened. “Did you like it? That’s my city,” he said. 

Stanley wasn’t too keen on Barcelona. We were still feeling some disappointment about Park Güell on the last day and Morella and Peñiscola had gone so much better, but my husband's customer service skills kicked in. “We loved it,” he said. It made me so happy. 

Why was no one filming this whole thing? Even in the moment, I wanted to capture it forever, because come on, when will something like this ever happen again? I was so thrilled to see my two living true loves talking together like buddies, and I felt the moment was right, so I said, “¿Os saco una foto?” (May I take a picture of you two?) 

We moved around so we were all on the same side of the barrier, the sand side, not the sound board side. I was keen to get the two guys together, but Stanley took the camera to get me and Manolo first. He was wearing one of those lovely shirts he wears that I wanted to buy for Stanley. I was too shy to put my arm around him, but he gripped my shoulder tightly. That’s right, never let me go! 

Famous author + famous recording artist = one great afternoon 
I posted that photo on Facebook even though almost none of my friends would know what was going on and got loads of likes. And then I posted it in the Manolo García group, and got just as many likes and one person who was envious: “I was in Valencia and I didn't get the chance to do that!” That’s the funny thing. I only had this opportunity because something terrible happened to me years before, and I had a great husband who insisted I write to tell Manolo all about it. And again years later to tell him we would be in Valencia. It was a case of asking and receiving. And having a compelling story. 

Manolo put his glasses back on while I insisted on taking the camera to get the guys together, and they were chatting away. I took a picture before they were ready, and that turned out to the best one. They’re standing together absorbed in the moment. So beautiful! 

Two pals in Valencia 
At that point it had been maybe ten minutes, and who would dare to ask for more than that? I thought it was about over, but it wasn’t! We walked close to the stage to get out of the sun and kept chatting. He was talking about how his songs are “pocket philosophy” and the kinds of messages in them (so many, so wonderful, IMHO). He knew I could understand, “But what I don’t understand is how can someone who doesn’t know Spanish…” I always knew that would be the real kicker, that Manolo García would want to meet my rara avis husband who listened to his songs on repeat without knowing anything they say. 

That sun is bright! 
Stanley said something elegant about how he can hear the emotional impact in spite of the language barrier, and that the music is beautiful, and, “You’re a good singer.” 

“Oh, thank you,” said the man with the magic voice. (And so well preserved, too! Like a fine wine, they say all over Spain.) I may have been reading into his quick-moving eyebrows, but he seemed surprised or taken aback. I'm sure it's such an assumed, obvious thing that no one had told him he's a good singer for some time. Leave it to my earnest husband to fill in a gap. 

We mentioned the CD with all the songs in the car, and in Spanish I said, “Sometimes he asks me, ‘What does this song mean?’ and I translate.” Or I tried, anyway. 

Other topics included where we were born, how he feels LA is fake, the time when they asked him to stay in New York and work on his English to cross over, but he said no, he’s happy in Spanish, Native American cultures he admires, living with Nez Perce in Idaho (What! When was that?), and lapsing into Spanish at one point because he was so into telling us how he felt about protecting the environment by adopting natural practices. I looked at Stanley and said, “Are you getting this?” and interpreted a little, but we quickly moved on to politics. Everyone present was in agreement. 

He’s a voracious reader (About a month after this encounter, he publicly said, "Happiness is being a voracious reader and raising chickens."), and he recommended Lucia Berlin's stories to me. (I asked for the collection A Manual for Cleaning Women at my local bookstore as soon as we got back, because when Manolo García recommends a book to you, you don’t not read it. It's as awesome as he said.) He was speaking Spanish again, about the importance of music and the other arts because of the world we live in, and I felt so accomplished that I managed to blurt, “Soy escritora también” (I'm a writer, too). 

“Oh, What do you write? Novels, plays…” 

“Novels,” I clarified, nodding my head so much it’s amazing it didn’t fly off. “My first came out two days ago” (I was being literal, remembering Awash in Talent's preorder status on May 24) “and the second comes out in December and is based on the legend of the seven noble knights of Lara.” 

A pause, as if he was never expecting to have to take in so much information. And then, “Es muy importante ese tipo de creatividad.” (That kind of creativity is really important.) He said more on that theme, but I was too blown away to remember. Manolo García said my writing is important. I have a responsibility not to let him down now. 

I think things were slowing down, and Stanley and I were just staring at him, smiling, and could have done that until the end of time. “No quiero cansaros…” (I don't want to wear you out), he said. 

Photo by Jessica Knauss 
¡Por favor!” (Puh-lease!), I interjected, snapping another photo of him in the shade. Sometime during these lovely moments, fans gathered outside the side gate of the bullring. They could see their idol talking to two lousy Americans, and they shouted “¡Manolo!” and did the flamenco clapping rhythm from his most popular song, “Pájaros de barro.” I kept looking over at them, but he must get this all the time. He started apologizing that we couldn’t have that cup of coffee he'd promised me so long ago on a watercolor painting. When were we leaving Spain? 

“El lunes” (Monday), I said, dreading that horrendous eventuality. 

“In two days, I’m giving a concert in Sevilla. Can you come?” 

Utter astonishment. “No tenemos entradas.” (We don't have tickets.) 

“Doesn’t matter. I invite you.” 

What! Is this really the kind of thing that happens in Manolo’s reality? 

Yes. Yes, it is. 

“Right now,” he said, I don’t have time, because I have interviews and things, but in Sevilla, I have nothing, so we can get together, chat, have wine, or coffee…” 

“Cola cao…” I said, amazed I could form any words with so much dopamine sloshing around in my head. I said “Cola cao” to Manolo García! It's the iconic Spanish chocolate drink, and it shows up in one of his songs from 1993. 

“Cola cao,” he approved. You can’t ask for rewards like that. 

Yes, yes, all nodding and happy smiles. Stanley and I didn’t commit to going to Sevilla, but we reveled in the invitation. 

And here came Marta. Manolo must've needed to be somewhere, but she smiled and waved at us as if we weren’t disrupting their whole schedule. She was speaking Spanish, and Manolo was still speaking English for Stanley’s benefit, and he told her to let us come in before the doors opened to the public at 7:30 that night so we can choose our seats tranquilamente, and that he’s invited us to Sevilla to be sure she can arrange it and I can’t remember much else because it was all welling to a climax. I recall him charmingly saying, “I wait for you…” and trailing off because he couldn’t figure out the verb construction. I know he meant, "I hope to see you in Sevilla." Lovely Spanish has no distinction between waiting and hoping. I was hoping for the two kisses on the cheek goodbye, but no, he shook our hands again in the American style. 

“Voy a saludar a esta gente” (I'm going to say hi to these people). He was referring to the clapping fans outside the gate. 

No, don’t leave. Don’t let this moment end. I felt ashamed of this selfish thought immediately. It had been the best half hour Stanley and I had experienced, and believe me, we knew about wonderful moments. It passed in the blink of an eye, as all the best moments do, and memory and gratitude remain. 

As soon as Manolo was a significant distance away, accompanied closely by Marta, Stanley looked at me and said, “He’s nice.” Always the understated one, my true love. 

I grabbed Stanley and hung on, incredulous. “Oh my God, so nice!” Words. They failed me. “Thank you!” I said. It was because of Stanley's insistence that any of this happened. I would never have written to my idol at all, much less twice, eight years apart. 

I took a picture of Stanley in the empty bullring and of the plants on the stage, then as we made our way out, I snapped a blurry one of Marta and Manolo standing at the bullring door, clasping hands with those fans through the bars. (How does he not pick up every disease known to humankind?) 

Manolo's face is so expressively dynamic, I think Stanley would have understood the gist no matter what language he was speaking. Watching the undulating muscles and the slope of certain angles, the only word I could think of was "creativity." Unbridled creativity. He seemed so much taller than I’d expected. Looking at the pictures, in which he seems normally proportioned, I'm guessing that was one more effect of his charisma. 

Stanley thought his English was perfect, and separately pointed out his humanity by saying that his temples showed greys and he needed another dye job. I think Manolo put the glamour on both of us: he struggled with English (delightfully, and I was thrilled to come to his linguistic aid) and Stanley couldn’t perceive it, while I thought his hair showed no signs of age. After we got home, Stanley made a point of showing me in videos that Manolo has a little bald spot in the back. “He’s human,” my darling husband said. Yes, he’s human, that’s the incredible thing. More than once I’ve come to the conclusion that a world with such a human in it cannot be a terrible place. 

From there, barely able to navigate the metro under the love-drunk influence of having my whole artistic life converge in one place, I started to feel we should be hounded by the press so everyone could find out what’s so special about us that we got such a magnificent gift. We retrieved the car and drove to the laundry. They were closed for siesta. I wondered if we would ever get our clothes. 

We returned to the hotel room to rest—as if!—in preparation for staying up late that night. I collapsed across the bed and Stanley was at the computer looking up how far it was to Sevilla and then Sevilla to Madrid, and hotels in Sevilla, and did I want to do it or not? I felt bad making Stanley drive so much because although I had no clue how much he must've been suffering, he seemed tired. And we would lose what we’d already paid for the next few days for our Valencia hotel, and the Sevilla hotel would be another expense, added to the all those phone calls with Marta! And there was the matter of not having seen much of Valencia and the whole reason we chose Valencia was so we could see Valencia, and it does seem worth a good visit. 

But that all pales in comparison to an invitation from Manolo García. Even while I was feeling, and Stanley agreed, that the half hour was better than anything anyone could ever have imagined, much less asked for, lying there, I made a conscious choice to abandon plans and live for the art of living. 

In the next posts: I'd been waiting more than twenty years to go to a Manolo García concert. Now I'm going to not one, but two? 

Catch up with the rest of the posts in this series here