One day, two intrepid adventurers – one with a year’s Spanish and the other with a phrasebook – braved a trip with the local Spaniards from the immaculately clean Granada station on a big, cushy tour bus. My son Conor and I were heading for Nerja on the Costa del Sol.
As the bus rolled southwest, the steep, ochre-hued Sierra Nevada Mountains gave way to the whitewashed coastal villages above an azure Mediterranean. It was only 20-some miles to the next continent. The day seemed clear enough to see Africa from the shore.
When I was a kid ‘exotic’ was a New England beach vacation. We’d pile in the car while my father drove and treats prevailed. Dad and I played Skee-Ball on the boardwalk every evening, winning miles of tickets good for small prizes. Kathy and Joanna, my sisters, gobbled cotton candy until their tongues were blue. Mom iced cooked lobsters in the room sink for my father. We ate grinders with black olives and Italian ham, clam rolls and snow cones. I got up for sunrise on the beach and looked for sand dollars. That was the best bit of summer.
When he was in 8th grade, I promised my son a trip to Spain if his language grades improved. Now in high school, Conor’s grades were high enough to suggest Honors Spanish, so I booked a family trip to Granada. Nerja was our day trip to the coast. My husband stayed behind to check out the air-conditioned Granada museums.
On a sunny day in Nerja the beach is still an invitation to indulgence. From the shore a cool breeze swept up the street – exactly what Grenada lacked when the sun was shining. Conor and I bought gooey pastries, Costa del Sol postcards, tacky souvenirs and a cheap camera as we walked down the main street to the sea.
Nerja is also a haven for British tourists. This has very positive points: I don’t have to rely totally on my spotty Spanish, there’s a proliferation of English goods and most everybody here is paler than me. Halfway to the beach we swung left into the sweets shop. Into heaven.
Inside were all the British sweets I can’t find unless I visit our relatives in Belfast. My son got a candy bar and I bought a Walnut Whip—a triangular cone of thick milk chocolate, filled with fluffy whipped marshmallow and topped with a walnut half. I eat one every time I’m in Ireland. Despite the heat, this one was just as delightful.
Lingering at the Balcony of Europe, that marble-paved costal bluff with a stunning ocean view, you couldn’t see Africa, but you could see all along the coast. We ate our snacks under the palms and watched the tourist trolley lumber by. My son greeted everyone with ‘Hola’ on as we began strolling to the shore.
We unrolled our towels at Calahonda Beach for a swim. Like many European beaches it’s pebbles instead of sand; the ocean undertow quickly fills your sandals with dime-sized stones and buries your feet in gravel. A short hike on the seaside promenade later, we jumped down onto pebbly Burriana Beach, where restaurants and shops wedged cheek-to-jowl with one another.
This time in Spain Conor and I ate all the great things Spanish class leaves you wondering about. At lunch one day, my bowl of gazpacho arrived with a single ice cube floating on top. The Moroccan tea shop served us mint lemonade – yellow liquid flecked with ground fresh mint leaves. In the Alcazin, I discovered horchata, an almond-milk drink and bought velvet-smooth melocotones (peaches) from the market. For dinner Conor enjoyed ribos del toro (bull’s tale stew.) There were churros and chocolate for a treat; sometimes even bocadillos (sandwiches) for breakfast, made with jamon iberico and served with café con leche.
But I had come all the way to Nerja for Ayo’s paella. Ayo’s is the last restaurant at the end of Burriana Beach: sit under the canopy and watch the ocean, near the open-fire cooking zone. For €5 your paella dreams can come true.
Conor’s plate came out first: brimming with golden, spiced rice mixed with chicken pieces and freshly cooked whole shrimp. Those little shrimp faces allowed Conor to excuse them from his plate. Antennae first, they landed with a soft “plop” on my dish. Marvelous mouthfuls they were; every single one of them.
My paella was gone, but a daydream of vacationing in Nerja with my sisters and their kids still played on in my head. Although it’s still fun, New England coastal vacations would be ‘normal’ for my son and his cousins. For them, a place like Spain was the new ‘exotic’.
Back on the beach, I stood by a fig tree while my son played in the surf. Soon we headed from the cove up to town, cold drinks in hand. Conor found our bus across the street from where we’d arrived. Showing our tickets, he explained in Spanish our destination to the driver.
A couple of hours later, over steep mountain passes, two intrepid adventurers would reach Granada again on a big, cushy bus full of Spaniards. Now as we rolled past the beautiful blue coves of the Costa del Sol towards home, we both said goodbye to the beach. And I peered out the window to the horizon beyond. Just in case I saw Africa.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem