The Impossibility of Return

Definitive food: the champiñones a la plancha at a bar just outside the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. Upturned on the small plate, scorchingly hot, their cups filled with hot olive oil, garlic, and parsley.

As soon as I crossed the border at Irún, to begin my second visit to Spain, my body propelled me through the streets in search of these. I never found them, not there in Irún, not when I went back to Madrid’s Plaza Mayor (the bar itself seemed to be gone), and not in any of the subsequent seven years of returns to and residences in Spain. I tried to replicate them on the grill here in the kitchen in Brooklyn the other night, and came closer than I’ve been, but still not quite there. I eventually found champiñones in Irún that evening, at a crowded and likely seeming bar near the train station, but they were stewed in a broth (chicken broth, to my vegetarian horror!) and, though tasty, were not at all the same.

So, of the first moments of that long-awaited first return to Spain, I retain this watery memory of disappointment, of a return that was impossible. The more piercing memories that define those first moments of return are visual and linguistic and epic. Emerging from the station and heading down a crowded sidewalk slanting towards the sea, a rapid flap and flash of white and gray, a blaring car horn, people turning and turning away, an oncoming woman in front of me stopped in her tracks, her definitive cry ¡ay! ¡la palomita! entering straight into my ears gathering significance even as the sight entered my eyes: the wounded pigeion flapping helplessly at my feet, white and gray and, I now saw, red and broken wing. The singularity of this, the shock shared with all the passersby, never before and never since have I seen a pigeon hit by a car.

And then, mushroom-fed and my ears still ringing with that clarity of comprehension, weeks and weeks of cottonheadedness in France and Italy now at an end, I bought El País at the news stand in the station and delighted in my eyes’ ready passage over the text while waiting for the train that would take me on to Madrid. El País, because that was the paper that bound me to my personal history in Spain, that linked me to liberalism, to the transcendence of education’s shortcomings, to transgression. I had crossed the frontier, and had only just begun to understand that return is an illusion.