a wandering woman writes

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Mary Lee Settle, on Spain

"To be alone by choice is one of the great luxuries of the world. I went to Spain alone."

Mary Lee Settle, "Spanish Recognitions"

I was bound to love a book with that opening line, wouldn't you say?

One of the books I picked up in Hay on Wye was a paperback copy of Spanish Recogitions by an American novelist, Mary Lee Settle, author of an acclaimed (so the book jacket tells me) book about her wanderings in Turkey called "Turkish Reflections."

At 82 years old, Mary Lee Settle flew into Madrid, hired a car and started out in "search of Spain." An ambitious project, but she winds up doing what we'd expect a history buff with an interest in Turkish culture to do: following the path of history in her rented car. She traces the Moorish conquest of Spain sweeping north, then the Christian reconquest in the other direction. Along the way she ponders Penninsulan wars I'd never heard of, but now recognize in Salamanca street names. She looks briefly at the Civil War, in Madrid and later in Granada, with the eyes of a woman who remembers it, who had an opinion as it happened in the 30s, and who knew young Americans who came to Spain to fight with the Republican forces.

I left this book with a long list of people I want to know more about, history I want to dive into, and places I want to visit. I will do all of that, in Spanish. Settle doesn't speak Spanish, and, despite having read extensively before visiting, isn't always academically straight-on in her history. The Amazon page includes a post by a reviewer who loved the book, but hopes a new revised edition will straighten up some historic references, questionable translations, etc.

So why does the reviewer who chronicles Settle's every error love the book? Why do I?

Because Mary Lee Settle writes lovely, lyrical prose. And she's my kind of traveller:

I had all day to roam. After all, I was alone, and almost asking to get lost. I was looking forward to discovery, not to being tied to that deadening word, itinerary. How can you know ahead what you are going to see, find, lose, discover any more than who you are going to fall in love with the day after tomorrow?

She finds duende in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. Despite not speaking the language she "meets" my Spanish neighbors, and I recognize them. On the Sunday morning she arrives in Salamanca, an older man leaves his wife with the newpaper and baked goods they just picked up in town, climbs off the Gran Vía into the passenger seat of Settle's car, and guides her to her hotel with hand signals. When the 82 year old stranger doesn't understand his directions in Spanish, he escorts her to her hotel before heading home to his wife and newspaper.

She joins the nightly paseo in the cities and pueblos she visits, and calls the Spanish "the most accomplished strollers in Europe". I'd add they beat any North Americans I've ever met, as well, but she is indeed on to something "Spanish". As she dives into the story of Juana la Loca, or Lorca, or Unamuno, or Teresa of Avila, or Isabel la Católica (yes, Americans, of Columbus fame) she walks through their "places" to get to know them, and she "recognizes" something "Spanish": a character, a history, a way of looking at the world, a set of beliefs and customs. She gets, as she writes in her final paragraph, "a half-caught glimpse of that essence which is Spain".

I closed the booking feeling like I'd met a new friend. Sadly, when I surfed away to locate her, I found instead her obituary in the Guardian and the Washington Post.

I'd hoped to write and thank her for resparking my own passion for wandering Spain, and for giving me a long Spanish reading list and a longer travel wish list.



  • Hola Erin, I thought I'd swing by your blog again and see what's up. I'm in Salamanca now and getting pumped for Ferias! I started my own blog documenting my adventures in Spain, feel free to check it out if you're interested: http://acropolisdove.mindsay.com. Comments are always welcome! Enjoy the festivities this weekend!

    By Anonymous Michelle, at 1:16 PM  

  • I've added it to my amazon list for future buying...


    By Blogger Alfacharly, at 1:55 PM  

  • I thought I recognised the name Mary Lee Settle and then you wrote 'Turkish Reflections' and yes, it's here on my bookshelf.

    I read on and you said, who knew American women were here in the war and guess what I'm reading now 'The Women Who Wrote the War' by Nancy Caldwell Sorel.

    I'd recommend both, sending the one I own but convinced that Andrew the Canadian would grouch if I mailed you the second one :)

    By Blogger woman wandering, at 5:21 PM  

  • Thanks, Alex and ww!

    And welcome to Salamanca, Michelle! Nomadita and I are heading out to snap some pics of today's festivities...Hope you'll be enjoying them, too! I am so glad you have a blog! I'll surf over as I soon as I get back here. Enjoy the ferias!!

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 5:37 PM  

  • Thanks for the recommendation. I shall look for the book, as I'd read her Turkish Reflections. And I didn't know she'd died.

    By Blogger paris parfait, at 11:43 PM  

  • Hi! I hope you enjoyed the fuegos!

    I've been perusing the ferias schedule and amusingly enough the high point for me is the British Airways Pipe Band.

    There's something in the wailing of bagpipes that never fails to send a shiver down my spine.

    The problem with those kilt-clad brits is that they follow a route trough all the casetas and get free beer at every one of them, so they don't actually get to play a lot, and the quality of their performance starts suffering after three or four stops.

    By Anonymous lrb, at 11:49 PM  

  • Hmm, free beer...?
    Wandering-woman, do you have a pipe?
    At least, do you have a kilt?

    By Blogger Nomadita, at 1:06 PM  

  • Erin, this has got to stop. How do you expect us to have a life of our own, let alone write our own blogs, when you keep writing such interesting stuff with amazing photos! And now you give us more books to read and even more links to investigate and you haven't even told us about the other books you bought in that fascinating place Hay-on-Wye.
    Joking, of course...

    By Blogger daniel, at 8:33 AM  

  • lrb, I'm a little late on the reply - Hopefully you caught a few performances by your favorite kilt-clad Celts by now. I caught a jamming piper (small pipes, not sure what type) at the Mercado Columbino today, with a fiddle and a couple of drummers. Hope you're enjoying the ferias and catching the bagpipers early in their free beer tour!

    Nomadita, lol, good idea. Let's see, I do have a tin whistle and a jean skirt, will that help? You going to sing?

    LOL; careful, daniel it'll all go to my head. I do blog in spurts, don't I? Now if I could could find the time to get back to reading my favorite blogs....

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 7:49 PM  

  • I loved that book. Set me alight on Spanish history and so inspired by her courage to hire a car and travel alone in her 80s.

    By Blogger Rachel Webb, at 4:01 PM  

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