Envisioning a positive response.

It’s not often I get a piece of advice that really sticks.

That probably says more about me and my obstinate personality than anything else, but I wanted to put this thing out there because I think it’s important.

If you know me (which if you’re reading this you probably do), you know that I get ranty. It’s a family trait. As I expressed to a friend recently, I frequently care an inordinate amount about relatively trivial things. Maybe it’s because I’m a nerd. Maybe it’s because I’m a Lynch. Maybe it’s because Lynches are nerds, or maybe it’s just me. In any case, I care, although whether or not I should care as strongly as I do is a matter of debate.

Most of the time this is in good fun. I optimistically think it’s one of my more charming traits. When I catch myself ranting, I attempt to make it enjoyable for the listener in so far as I am capable. But sometimes the rants are just rants, just me unproductively shaking my fist at the machinations of circumstances outside my control.

And sometimes these rants are me, vocally working through a stress point. An argument I haven’t had but probably will have to have and don’t know how to approach. A conflict I’m not avoiding so much as training myself for. I have them with friends. I have them in my car. I have them in the solitude of my apartment, pacing back and forth, refuting the ghosts of interlocutors past and present.

Sometimes I get really worked up over things that haven’t happened, slights that haven’t come to pass, opinions I only imagine another person holding.

It’s as though I’m so afraid of missing my opportunity for a killer comeback that I’m trying to anticipate every potential scenario for which I might need to have a comeback prepared.

This isn’t as completely neurotic as it may seem. In fact, it’s been helpful in some circumstances—particularly when the event I’m preparing myself for is an extremely likely scenario—to have a response ready. It helps me feel more confident to have an argument at hand, rather than being caught off-guard.

I was caught off guard a little while ago by some criticism I received about some work I’d done. I didn’t know how to respond. It took me a while to work through some of the frustration I felt. It nagged at me. And that’s a bad thing, because in my line of work, I can expect that criticism to come hard and heavy. I can’t have this reaction every time it comes up. It doesn’t matter that I’m right; handling criticism maturely is part of being a functional adult, not to mention a self-employed entrepreneur.

This whole topic came up recently at a work conference. Topher DeRosia over at HeroPress gave a talk about how to handle negative feedback, and one of his main suggestions was: envision a positive response.

Or something along those lines. I don’t 100% remember his wording. What I took away from it was that all that time I spend working out the perfect repartee to that thing that no one’s said yet could be better spent imaging a positive response. Something that might de-escalate the situation. That could build trust and understanding—or at the very least not cost me my job.

I had a really good opportunity to practice this recently. A dear and valued friend gave me advance warning that a particular person had been invited to an event that I was going to. In ordinary circumstances, my response to this person being present would be to not attend, but I didn’t feel this was the appropriate reaction in this instance. Instead, thanks to my friend’s warning, I had about thirty-six hours to coach myself into finding a way to deal with this person’s presence appropriately.

It worked, but old habits die hard. I have an upcoming client meeting where I know I’ll have to listen patiently and explain my decision-making process to someone who has hired me for my expertise yet somehow thinks they know better. It’s frustrating, because I care. I want to do the best job I can for them. I sincerely believe I am. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of time building up a detailed case in my mind to demonstrate to this person how the thing I am trying to do for them is the best thing we can do.

But: that’s not the right response, and not just because my client ultimately holds the purse strings. No, it’s not the right response because my client deserves to be heard, and I could stand coming down from my high horse for a bit to listen.

I am a person of strong opinions. But thoughtful opinions are better. My goal is to provide both. It’s not a bad thing to think through your ideas—intensely, rigorously, with all the passion that a late-night ranting session can offer. But it’s far more vital to be ready, when the time comes, to respond with respect and compassion when your ideas are challenged.

That’s my goal. At least I hope it is. I’m working on it.

Hair Journey Part V: Pink.

It’s hard to overstate how much I loved pink hair.

In all honesty, though, I did not expect this. Pink hair would be my first “unnatural” color, in that it was going to fall outside the gamut of hues I could conceivably have been born with. Even though I felt fairly certain that my previous hair colors were obviously not my natural color, this was bound to be a step beyond. But, if only in honor of my younger self, I felt I had to give it a go.

For context, little-me loved the color pink. I know many little girls are obsessed, but I’ve been told I took it to extremes. “Pink” was synonymous with “good” in my child vocabulary, such that at family dinner blessings I used to thank the Lord for “having a pink day.” D’aw, so cute.

But eventually, I grew out of pink. It’s still a color I like, just not one I wear very often. And when my hair journey was first conceived, it didn’t make the list.

And then I started doing my “research” (which here means obsessing over other people’s hair colors), and quickly stumbled across images of people online with absolutely stunning pink hairstyles. I learned that what I wanted was more of a rose or peach color, something dusky and delicate, but still dark at the roots like a balayage. Elizabeth assured me I’d have to start with something pretty strong, because really vibrant dyes fade faster than the ones I’d been using thus far. So I basically just trusted Elizabeth to pick colors that would work, and then let her go to work on another marathon session of bleaching and painting my hair.

I should say that this is also the point where my hair experiment got expensive. Like, really expensive. Turns out, it takes a lot of time and product to bleach your hair and then paint stuff back in, not to mention treating it along the way to make sure it doesn’t become impossibly fried in the process. I’m glad I’ve reached this point several months in, because by now I feel like I understand and appreciate the cost. If I’d been quoted this number six moths previously when I first started I probably would have been more than a little incredulous. I also appreciate that Elizabeth breaks this news to me before we’ve started so that I still have a chance to change my mind. I decide to go for it, but also to wait longer for my next appointment so that I don’t destroy my budget. I’m glad to know that my root color (the same I used with my previous balayage) will last for two months, even though I’m pretty sure the pink ends won’t.

Anyway, Elizabeth finishes up and turns me around. I’ve learned by now that my reaction will always be somewhat giddy. As much as I didn’t anticipate how expensive this whole process would be when I started, I also didn’t realize how fun it would be. And now here we are, with a pink color I never thought I would choose, and I’m over the moon. When I get home, my niece Charlotte (3), who’s usually shy and won’t let me hold her, pats me on the head tells me “I like your hair.” Thanks, Char. I do, too.

At one point, a couple days after dying my hair, I went out to one of my favorite local pubs to grab a pint and do some reading. I sat down at a bench not far from a girl with rainbow colored hair, and thought, Oh, her hair is very fun. And then I realized that I, too, have very fun hair!

That was a turning point. My heart leapt. I might have smiled awkwardly at her. The thing is, when I see people on the street I assume that however I see them that day is however they must be all the time. But in reality, most of us take turns looking good: some days we’re wander out of the house in a semi-unkempt state, and we see the put-together folk wandering about and we wish that we, too, could look be perpetually sharp like that. And then there are other days where we’ve taken our grooming an extra step, and people probably look at us and think we always look that way.

Well, in this instance, it was me looking at a girl with colorful hair thinking she must have always had her hair that color. And then suddenly realizing that now people look at me and probably think that I’ve always been the kind of person to sport pink hair, when in truth, only six months ago I’d never dyed my hair at all. Well, look at me now. Look at me now!

The sad news is that, just as I’d been told, the pink faded. After only a couple weeks I felt myself already missing the bright vibrant color I’d started with. I had meant to take pictures along with way, but for most of this time period I was absorbed by painting my new home, which didn’t leave me many days to get cleaned up enough for pictures.

I also noticed a distinct difference in the texture of my hair—something I again expected because of the damage bleach does. Up to this point, my hair had been surprisingly resilient. Now, it felt rougher particularly after a shower. I had some hair serum lying around that’s supposed to make your hair feel smoother, but I’d never needed it with my natural hair because it was slippery enough. Well, it’s finally found its purpose. I guess the other side affect of the new texture is that my hair stays in place a little better. If I had more time, I’d probably use this to try some new hairstyles.

Even though I didn’t get pictures of it as it faded out, I did have the foresight to snap a foto the day I got it done, while still at its most vibrant and with Elizabeth’s curls intact. I almost wish I could stay with pink a bit longer, but I have a couple more colors lined up for the summer before I reach my grand finale, and I’m to excited about what’s coming up to linger. I go blonde tomorrow, for the first time since I was five. In the meantime, here you go, folks: pink hair, don’t care.

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One Year Later.

A year ago, I flew to Vienna.

It was the beginning of a great experiment: to see if I could sustain myself through freelance copywriting while living for two months in Europe. It worked, mostly. I made enough to keep going, but not enough to do so indefinitely. I wanted to bring my German back up to the proficiency level I’d achieved during the year I spent as an au pair after high school, and it certainly improved but not as much as I wanted. I traveled more than I expected, but was less productive than I imagined I would be. (I blame my imagination for that.)

Nevertheless, a lot of that trip went super well. I had a friend living with me my first month, which probably helped to get me up in the morning and kept me motivated to work through the day. It was summer, which left plenty of daylight in the evening for me to wander around and enjoy the city after work finished. I knew the language and had a good reference point for the culture, so a lot of the experience felt familiar and comforting. The entire trip left me full of inspiration and a sense of possibility. I came home bursting with ideas and motivation.

Most of that didn’t pan out. But more of it has than I give myself credit for. From June 1st, 2016 to June 1st, today, it’s been an intense year. I spent four months of it living abroad, I learned new career skills, I met some great people, pushed my boundaries, regretted pushing my boundaries, learned some really useful things about the boundaries that I pushed and later regretted pushing, changed my mind about some things, disassembled some of my Islands of Personality and started reconstructing them, found focus, lost focus, re-found focus. All-in-all, a bit of a rollercoaster for someone who doesn’t really like rollercoasters.

But I’m glad the whole thing started from Vienna. When I think back, I feel grateful for the sunshine in the park, for the waiters who left me be while I wrote, for the long walks at night, for the vaulted ceilings and marble tables and coffee served on silver trays, and for the pianist playing Für Elise while I nursed an Aperol spritz and listened. I wrote when I left that I could see myself going back one day. I still think that ways sometimes, much to my surprise. Whether it’s nostalgia or the beginning of something bigger, I don’t know.

Maybe I’ll know more this time next year.

 

Hair Journey Part IV: Caramel Balayage.

Well, I have a lot to catch up on.

And although there are a lot of things I’d like to start writing about, I have to start with my hair because I am seriously behind the game on that one. I’ve gone through two different colors since I last wrote about my hair journey, and I’m going in on Saturday for my next stage. And since I am absolutely dedicated to chronicling this adventure to the end, I have to get my thoughts out before I fall further behind.

Back in September, when I first started talking to Elizabeth about my plans for dying my hair, she told me I should try a “balayage.” I had never heard of this word before, but I pulled out my cell phone and looked it up. Essentially, it’s a super fancy way of highlighting your hair from one color at your roots to another at your tips. It takes a lot of blending, but the result is more natural looking and super cool. We talked about a few options for where I could do a balayage, and the original plan was to do it as I transitioned from chocolate to a lighter color. Elizabeth thought chocolate with red ends would be cool, but in my mind I didn’t like the thought of going from red to chocolate back to red again, So when the day came, I asked for her to do a warm caramel color.

Because I wanted this hairstyle to last for two months while I was in Spain, we chose a root color which we thought might blend in with my natural roots as they grew back. (Balayages in general are a more forgiving hair color, because they tend to fade well over time.) I sort of fell in love with the ash brown we chose, and I sort of wish we’d used it when I did my all-over brown. Maybe someday. Elizabeth also left some of the dark brownish-red I already had in my hair in place as the blending point from dark to light. This ensured I would keep some warm tones and that everything would blend more naturally.

What followed was truly epic. Elizabeth busted out her foils, and spent the next… two hours? carefully painting my hair, piece by piece. I have a lot of hair. It’s thinned a little since starting this whole process, but still—it’s a thing every single stylist I’ve ever visited has commented on, usually when they’re about halfway through blowing it out. And I have to emphasize: Elizabeth was painting tiny pieces at a time.

She started with the root color, painting in the dark brown a certain distance down the strand. Then she used the bleach to start lightening the ends, leaving a certain portion in the middle untouched. And I think she might have used some more dye to help blend the dark and the light together so that the gradation would be smooth. In a few places she let the dark root color go all the way to the ends, and in others she let the highlight go almost all the way to the roots. It took forever, but in my excitement I didn’t feel bothered by that. When she finished painting everything in, she left me for a bit so that the dye and bleach could do its thing, and then used a caramel glaze when she washed everything out to give it that rich, warm color.

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A close-up of the paint job. Look at all those different colors!

I don’t know if I’ve gotten more used to having dyed hair, or if this color just worked for me. But something about this color felt right to me in a way that nothing previously had done. As much as I loved my earlier colors, they took a little getting used to. Every time I saw myself in the mirror I had a bit of a pause. It’s also true that the caramel color was closer to my natural hair color than anything previously, so maybe that was a factor. In any case, I felt happy and excited by this style the entire time I had it. I got a bit used to twirling the ends around my finger when I was distracted to see all the different colors. And, as Elizabeth though it would, this color held strong for a full two months. My roots definitely showed by the end, but only noticeably in strong lighting.

I was in a hurry the day I took pictures, so I struggled a bit trying to get a good pic that really captured the balayage in all its glory. So here are three. One of the things I learned about this style is that curling brings out more of the variations in tone. I’ve included pictures of both so that you get the idea.

 

 

Drawing nostalgia.

I opened my sketchbook today for the first time in a while.

Not to draw. In fairness, I have a couple other random places where I’ve been sketching lately, just not this particular sketchbook. Sketchbooks and I have a relationship similar to the one I share with my books and journals: I often have several going at once, each guided by a different purpose.

But this particular sketchbook has remained unfinished longer than any other. I began it in the fall of 2011, during my second year at Edinburgh. I took it with me to Russia, and to Austria, but I left it behind when I went to Madrid. Maybe it would have helped to have brought it with me.

When I opened the pages today, they crackled. They’d gone noticeably yellow and turned a bit frail. I remember purchasing it in an office supply shop, and it would seem the paper doesn’t hold up as well as my previous sketchbooks did. My highschool sketchbooks are just as sturdy as when I purchased them, even if they are dirtier and somewhat worn around the edges. But then, I used to finish a sketchbook or two a year during highschool. I used to draw every day.

It makes sense that I stopped in college. Sometime in university, I realized I would have to choose between drawing and writing. And I picked writing. But looking at my sketchbook today, I felt an ache in my heart. Not that I’d made the wrong choice, but because I’d ever had to choose to begin with.

I don’t think I’ll ever be the graphic novelist I’d once dreamed of becoming. Back in highschool, I drew enough to be at the head of my peer group. I thought if I kept going, I could become a great artist. Now, I look at people younger than me, and they’re beyond what I ever was. I invested my time elsewhere, and the only way I could catch up would be by taking time away from areas where I have gotten ahead. That doesn’t seem like a smart tradeoff to make.

But it doesn’t feel right to not be drawing anymore. As an outlet, it fed other areas of my life. It made me more relaxed. Inspired me to keep writing. So I’m tempted to find a way, just a little bit at a time, to keep the embers glowing. To finish that sketchbook, and start a new one. And do it again, and again, and again.

Some day, I will start a sketchbook that I will not finish. I hope I never know which sketchbook is my last. I hope I’m still drawing in one when I’m 90. But I imagine this will not be the last time I start a sketchbook and take over half a decade to finish it.

Finding Focus.

Well, I can’t believe it’s gotten to this point.

By which I mean both: “I can’t believe it’s my last Saturday in Madrid,” and also: “I can’t believe it’s March 25th and I haven’t blogged all month.”

I would be like “so much for my blogging every day goal,” but honestly the whole month has been a litany of “so much for this-or-that goal.” So much for learning Spanish, so much for getting up on time in the morning, so much for finishing work early and going out to explore the city. I’ve been struggling, and I think it’s only right in the interests of honesty to admit it. Working abroad is an amazing opportunity, but it is primarily that: an opportunity, and whether or not it actually proves to be amazing is up to you. It doesn’t happen automatically, and it can be frustrating to live under the pressure of having to make the most of your time abroad, especially when you are hyper-aware of what everyone else imagines your experience to be, and you want to live up to those expectations. Why yes, I am working from a bar, sipping my wine, watching the bustling streets of sunny Madrid pass by instead of holed up in my apartment, frantically trying to finish my latest assignment while there’s still daylight.

Does this sound whiny? It shouldn’t. I’m not trying to complain, I just want to be honest. I think we’ve fallen into a trap in the way we present our lives to others, in that we feel compelled to present the best face at all times, but feel false in doing so, and yet are afraid to admit when things aren’t all hunky-dory for fear of appearing glum, depressed or ungrateful. Well that’s the kind of nonsense I’d like to keep off my blog. This space is meant to be a real and honest exploration of shit I’m doing with my life, and that ought to include the things that aren’t working as well as the things that are.

So: I’ve had trouble pulling things together in Spain. And I’ll get into more of that in a second. But first I’d like to cover what I did over the past four weekends, which form part of why I’ve been so negligent in keeping this space up-to-date.

  1. Granada. I loved Granada. It was freaking incredible. If I come back to Spain for an extended period of time again, I may go to there. My last blog was on the Alhambra, and I meant to write more about the gypsy caves up by Sacromonte, and the city itself, but I got sidetracked by the other things and didn’t get to it. More on that to come.
  2. Barcelona. This was my other main travel destination when I came to Spain. It was nice, but much larger than I anticipated, and many of the attractions I wanted to see were quite far away from each other. Still, I discovered Gaudí, and that made the whole trip worthwhile. I think he would have made a great Hobbit architect.
  3. My friend Alaina came to visit. We had an excellent time exploring the city and discovering awesome places to eat and drink. We discovered my new favorite gin bar together. Good times.
  4. The UK. Originally, I had planned to devote my time in Spain to all things Spanish. But once I realized I was too distracted by ALL THE THINGS to do this (more on that later), I decided to pop over to the UK for a quick catch-up with some of my Uni friends. This is 100% the right decision, and did the more to help turn my month around than anything.

So there you go. Four pretty packed weekends sure put some perspective on why I’ve been remiss on, well, lots of things. In fact, they’re part of what helped me realize something very important about myself: I’m not a travel blogger. You know that last post I made about the Alhambra? It took me days to get that out. I was nearly to Barcelona by the time I managed to get it published, and that put me behind my schedule. I couldn’t decide if I should finish blogging about Granada before I moved on to Barcelona, or if I should skip the rest of my Granada post. Then I got back from Barcelona, and everything I felt I “had” to write about became this massive burden. I couldn’t write about what was actually on my mind because I hadn’t written these other posts yet. Blogging wasn’t an enjoyable experience, it was a task to cross off my list. An obligation.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I can only handle so many obligations. And if I’m prioritizing them, blogging is sure not at the top of my list. If I’m going to focus a lot of energy on making sure I get a thing done regularly, that energy should go toward something like my novel, or improving my languages.

All of which leads me to that “thing to come” I’ve mentioned in my preceding paragraphs:

I’m swamped. I’ve over-committed. I’m burning out. All the things I tell myself I’m going to do every day, they’re too much. I need to re-prioritize, and that mostly means that I need to cut back.

This is not an easy thing for me to admit. I like doing ALL THE THINGS, but in my excitement, I find I can’t focus on my actual priorities. So I planned my trip to Spain thinking that if I put in some intense study beforehand, and then really dedicated myself to practicing during the two months I was here, I could go home speaking Spanish. I think this would have worked, if I’d made my priority. Only I couldn’t bear to leave behind the books on Russian history I’d recently purchased, so I’ve spent most of the past two months desperately wanting to dive back into Russian practice. It doesn’t help that I made a stop by basically the most amazing fabric store in the world on my way to Madrid, and I’ve been antsy to get back home and sew again. Then there’s the apartment I’m moving into, which has probably cost me hours of productive work time as I’ve distractedly browsed the Internet for furniture and decor that I can’t actually afford. And of course at the bottom of all this is the thing that I really, actually should be prioritizing above all those other things, which is writing my novel. You know: that thing I said I had to do or else risk being a pretentious asshat for saying I would do it and then not.

I came to Madrid thinking it would put me back into that “everything is possible” mindset I had while I was in Vienna, only now I’m realizing that mindset was not a good place to be, even if it did make me happy. Because that happiness was an illusion built on a daydream of things I hadn’t done. And when the things you thought you would do don’t align with the things you actually can do, it leads to a pretty big crash. The kind that lands you in the doldrums for months as you beat yourself up for being less-than-awesome.

So Spain has been a reality check, which is not what I wanted, but certainly far better for me in the long run. I can’t do all the things—or at least, I can’t do them all well. I need to do the thing. And do that thing right.

Does blogging still have a place in all this? Oh most definitely. But not travel blogging. Not the kind of blogging that leaves me feeling drained for failing to live up to yet another obligation. Instead, this is my progress blog and my think space. This is where I’m going to keep dumping my spare thoughts, because it helps me focus. It keeps me accountable.

If that’s not useful or interesting or enjoyable to you, please be reminded that this is an opt-in space: you’re not obliged to keep reading. If you care to join me for the ride: thank you. I really do like knowing you’re here with me.

The Alhambra.

One day, about a decade ago, while shelving books at my library, I came across a book which intrigued me.

It was Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, and because at the time I was reading through a lot of classic fairy tales, I checked it out and brought it home. But I didn’t manage to read it. Who knows what got in the way: work, school, other reading material. I probably only read a chapter or two, and then returned it to the library before heading out of the country again. And that was the last I thought about the Alhambra for some time.

I wasn’t even particularly thinking about it when I booked my ticket to Spain. But somewhere along the line, the dots connected, and suddenly the Alhambra became one of my top travel goals during my visit. For someone all too used to winging her travel plans, it felt a bit odd to have such a specific destination. So, true to form, I procrastinated, delayed making specific plans or buying any tickets until one Wednesday I finally sat down and purchased a bus ticket and booked a hostel for the coming weekend. I was going to Granada.

I didn’t purchase my ticket to the Alhambra, however, for another two days. Every guidebook I read said that I should book tickets ahead of time, but I figured: it’s winter, I’m sure it’ll be fine. And then on Friday my anxiety overcame my procrastination, and I spent the last few hours before I had to catch my bus to Granada tracking down and purchasing a guided tour for the very next day. I was lucky: had it been summer, it’s likely the tickets would have been sold out weeks in advance.

My trip got off to a rough start. I’m quite used to using Google Maps to navigate cities, but it is not always the most convenient for using public transportation. The routes it gives are fine, but they often rely on your flawless ability to make a connection from one transport service to another, and if you happen to miss that connection, suddenly your “fastest route” changes to something completely different. It didn’t help that the bus station I needed was waaaaaaay out on the other side of town, and that the only transport system I really knew was the metro, and that for some reason this wasn’t on any of Google’s fastest routes. In any case, I gave myself 45 minutes to make a 28-minute trip, but partway through I caught a train in the wrong direction and so missed my bus. Happily, I was able to purchase a new ticket for a bus which departed only a half-hour after my original trip, and bus fare is cheap so I only lost about €18 in the whole fiasco.

That said, these sorts of near misses proved to be a rule for the trip. My tour of the Alhambra was set for 9am the next morning. As before, I left with what I thought would be plenty of time. And, as before, I made a wrong turn and nearly missed my tour. The way up to the Alhambra is easy to find, but once at the top it’s easy to head toward the entrance rather than to the visitor parking lot where the ticket booths are and where my tour was meant to begin. By the time I realized I was in the wrong place, it was 8:53 and I had a 10-minute trek to get to catch my 9:00 tour. I hustled, made it to the parking lot, frantically showed my tour reservation to 3 or 4 people who finally pointed me in the right direction. I managed to join my tour group just as our guide started to lead us up to the palace. Had I missed it, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have been able to buy another ticket for the day, and I may not have been able to book a new tour for the next day. And either way, the tour cost far more than the bus fare, so I lucked out.

PRO TIP: if you want to see the Alhambra, especially if you’re traveling during the summer, book well in advance and give yourself plenty of time to find your tour group. During peak tourist season, the Alhambra gets 6,000 visitors a day. You don’t want to be navigating that mayhem while you’re late and frantically searching for your group.

That said, once we started the tour everything became instantly amazing. I’m not used to booking tours, and usually opt for an audioguide, which I then find more annoying than worthwhile often as not. On this tour, our guide passed out radio receivers that you wore around your neck and which came with an earpiece that covered one ear. The tour guide was then able to talk into a microphone so that we could all hear her, and none of us had to push to get close to understand what she was saying. I think this made all the difference, as it allowed me to explore and look around whatever area we were in without feeling like I had to stand directly next to the guide to catch every word.

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A view of Albaicín, the medieval Muslim quarter, as seen from the ramparts of the Alhambra.

Once the tour started, we had to pass through multiple checkpoints depending on which area of the complex we went to visit. The Alhambra wasn’t just a fortress: it was a walled city, meaning it extends over an impressive amount of territory. And because of it’s location on top of a hill, it commands an impressive view of the surrounding city. To one direction you can see the old Muslim quarter, and a view of Sacromonte where the gypsy caves are. In another direction rise the Sierra Nevada, the tallest mountains on the Iberian peninsula. I couldn’t see them well during my visit, because although the sky shone blue, the atmosphere was thick. You would not have called the day “cloudy” at first, but yet the horizon seemed closer than it ought to be. Nonetheless, the views were stunning.

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An example of the decorative plasterwork which adorns the walls. Note the Arabic calligraphy: much of it repeats the name of Allah, or forms the words to prayers or holy verses.

Inside the royal complex, the wall decorations are almost overwhelmingly complex. Between molded plaster, tile work, and carved wood, the intricacy of pattern and detail are almost too much to take in. This is where our tour guide proved particularly helpful. She drew our attention to a number of elements I would have overlooked or else not understood on my own, including different religious symbols hidden in the math of the geometric forms. In particular, the significance of the numbers 8, and 7: 8 is the number for God, because the Arabic numeral 8 represents infinity, while 7 is the number of heavens, with the seventh heaven being closest to 8, or in other words to God. The subtlety here struck me, because of how pervasive this symbolism was throughout the entire structure, each archway, courtyard, and carved panel meant to draw the mind abstractly to God in one form or another. Through mathematics, of all things.

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The Alhambra means “The red one” in Arabic, due to the red clay with which it was made.

The whole tour, from the fortress, through the palace, and then to the gardens, took about 3 hours. The gardens were our last stop, and as relaxing and beautiful as the rest. The fountains you see in the photo below, however, are a new addition: our tour guide grumbled about how noisy they were, and seemed to feel they ruined the tranquility of the space. The original gardens had a much smaller fountain, whereas these struck up quite the cacophony. I found myself agreeing with our guide, and wishing for a more peaceful sound.

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Part of the gardens known as the Generalife, derived from the Arabic Jannat al-Arif, which means “Architect’s Garden.” The “architect” in this case probably refers to God.

We had one small break during the tour during which I tracked down a coffee vending machine. Then I wandered around looking at the cats. There were several, each glorious and beautiful it a different way, serenely meandering through the visitors, almost demanding attention as their due. They did not shy away when I went to pet them, although I wouldn’t have called them affectionate. One was kind enough to pose for me, as you can see in the photo below.

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One of several very content cats which I noticed wandering around the Alhambra. This one was kind enough to strike a regal pose and let me pet her for a bit.

It feels cheesy to say, but the Alhambra felt like stepping into a fairy tale. The entire time through, my mind kept wandering to all kinds of tales and legends. I wouldn’t say I’m a romantic person, generally speaking, but it’s hard to stand in a place of such splendid beauty and not give in to it a little. As a place, the Alhambra was meant to be a small piece of heaven on earth—somewhere which could draw one into a peaceful and meditative mindset. Not a place of revelry, pageant, hedonism, or war, but of quiet self-reflection.

In reality, it was certainly a fortress, commanded by a mixed bag of rulers. From my brief exposure to their stories, some seemed genuinely noble, living their lives to some degree according to the piety displayed in every detail of their architecture, and extending religious toleration within their city to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Another ruthlessly beheaded an entire family (according to legend) because one scion managed to seduce one of the sultan’s wives.

Nonetheless, while walking through the Alhambra I felt strangely at peace and at home. In terms of architectural beauty, I have certainly never seen anything which could compare, and it may not have its equal in the world. Probably for that reason, I feel at a loss to describe it, drawn irrevocably toward clichés which undermine the true beauty of the place. In the week before my trip, I found Washington Irving’s account on Audible and tried listening to his stories. But I couldn’t quite connect to them as I’d hoped to. They felt too romantic, too starry-eyed, not quite real. Having now seen the Alhambra for myself, it’s true they don’t do it justice. Now I doubt anything ever could.

 

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The Alhambra, viewed from the Generalife gardens.