Well, it’s been a while. In November of last year, I took a spectacularly stupid fall down a flight of stairs that resulted in a three-month recovery from a broken wrist and compression fractures of two vertebrae. Then, various family members got Covid, and other exigencies and routine aspects of life as we now know it prevailed. Suddenly I realized it has been four months since I last posted here, just as it’s the dawn of a research trip to Spain, Portugal, France, and Germany that I have waited for for two and a half years. My itinerary is meant to follow the fictional pathway of my main character Isabela— to traverse her imagined escape route from Portugal to Germany in order to evade the inquisition at the beginning of the 17th century.
But this trip is so much more. I struggled to decide that I would throw caution to the winds and travel to Europe, ride a bicycle from Salamanca to Porto, hire guides in various cities that specialize in 17th century Jewish diaspora and do a deep dive into my great grandmother’s Sephardic Jewish heritage that landed her family in Hamburg for three centuries. There was much to discourage me. More family members contracted Covid. The war in Ukraine began.
Then my publisher invited me to participate in an anthology of work addressing “Art in the Time of Unbearable Crisis.” What was I doing traveling to Europe “in a time of unbearable crisis?” The answer came from the part of my essay in which I say that our art is what we have to offer in such times… “some of us can meet the challenge of crisis with our skills as artists, writers, and musicians. It’s what we do best. It taps into the core of who we are as people.” It’s what we have to offer. (Look for this book coming in June or July from She Writes Press!) As I also said in my essay, I can’t have written two novels encompassing the themes of love and resilience in the face of unspeakable loss and traumatic change and not have some artistic tools to bring to the present table.
So, I mustered a bit of courage and my sense of adventure and planned this trip. It’s begun with three days in Madrid and Toledo.
In the Prado, I sought out paintings done during the time Isabela’s story is set. Rubens’ Sir Thomas More’s eyes are luminous with what I imagine was his struggle with his religious beliefs and the fracture of his world. Other works detail the clothing, food and implements and the worldly pursuits
of the time. As always, seeing these works in person makes them live in a way that reproductions just can’t. And then there are the fun tidbits of knowledge I missed in my art history education… Who knew that the artist Diego Velázquez’ father was Jewish?
Continued reminders of the devastation of Jewish life by the beginning of the 17th century in the Iberian Peninsula came on our visit to Toledo, once the capital of Spain, and where 30 percent of the population was Jewish.Toledo now has no significant Jewish community and only tourists come to see two restored synagogues. But the scene that is more likely to make it into Isabela’s Way is this bridge over the Tagus River, which struck me with its historic beauty.
Bridge over the Tagus River- Toledo
Along the way to Porto, a bike trip along the Douro River promises the opportunity get off the beaten path and see and smell and taste the environment. Similarly, the drive from Toulouse through southern France and then north to Strasbourg with stops in Montpelier, Lyon, and Dijon will inform the French portion of Isabela’s journey and a final visit to Hamburg will round out the research. Stay tuned!