Isabel Soto

Isabel Soto

Isabel Soto – I’m Madrid-born, London-raised and -educated, and currently a retired academic living in Spain. I’ve been in academia most of my working life, specializing in Afrodiasporic writing, particularly that of Langston Hughes. I’ve continued to research and publish but creative writing beckons forcefully: while not abandoning the words of others I now make space for my own. Passager Books, Literary Mama and MsLexia have allowed me to share that space.


It’s late. We are three, Jaime, Vince, and me. We’re taking our last evening stroll together. Tomorrow Jaime and I leave for Madrid and from there fly to New York. We’ve lived in Manhattan for nearly a year. It is August 1996 and we’re in Spain for our annual summer leave. This is Cap del Faro, south of Valencia, bang on the coast.
       The Mediterranean is the voice of our waking hours, from the burst of greeting that punctuates our every morning as we abandon slumber to the in-out sigh of its waves last thing at night. Calm or rough, serene or agitated, the Mediterranean is a word. The Mediterranean is our word.
       The family apartamento where we congregate dates from the 1960s when zoning laws—if one can truly speak of the rule of law in Francoist Spain—were tailored to maximize property developers’ profits. Thus our building sits as close to the coastline as is structurally feasible (this today would be unthinkable) directly above a rocky stretch and a small cove that gives the building its name: La Caleta, The Cove. Where the rocks end the sea begins. Tear your eyes away from its fickle, variegated waters, now steel grey, now turquoise, at times white-capped and churning; distract yourself from the early morning anglers, an unbothered cormorant, and look leftwards: there it is, the majestic El Dosser. One of the longest beaches on the Valencia shoreline, El Dosser ends visually with a cityscape dissolving into the distant horizon. Rocks, cormorants, the curve of the coast, the unstill sea: this is what we seek on rising every morning, almost before we acknowledge each other.
       Tonight we walk in silence back to La Caleta leaving behind flat-fronted village row houses, casas de pueblo, dating from the 1920s, now holiday homes huddled amidst the steadily encroaching tourist apartment blocks. The houses are dwarfed by the scale of the blocks, rebuking the latter day jerry-built interlopers through the simplicity of their design, the humanity of their proportions. Originally a small fishing village, Cap del Faro is today a family resort. Some businesses, along with the casas de pueblo, have survived. Casa Borrasca, serving traditional rice dishes, dates from early last century. The food is passable, served with an ill grace that one suspects endures unchallenged thanks to the near monopoly of the eatery among local rivals. This is Spain and youngsters share their elders’ schedule. It is close to midnight: we see infants, toddlers and adults, skittish, restless teenagers, and unconcerned parents, all mingling, sharing the same social space, eating and drinking. They’re enjoying the remaining heat of the day and will linger till the small hours and cooler night air.
       We take the long route home, past the local church, a modern, unprepossessing stucco building with several structural fins that fan out on the roof in a semi-circle, echoing the circular shape of the church itself. A public footpath at the back leads both to the church and the Ermita de los Navarros, a modest 19th century chapel, its unassuming dimensions and whitewashed simplicity a reproach to its brasher successor. Veering away from the church we reach a small promontory overlooking the sea. The moon has risen. The night sky above our heads and the waters below are transfigured: a stamp of incandescence. We look and listen, straining to hear the sea’s measured breathing. I think of Clarissa Dalloway’s sewing, the steady movement of stitches likened to the rhythmic unrolling of waves that “collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall.” These waves are not Woolf’s waves, yet I place both in oceanic company, sealing a kinship unworried by difference.
       I think too of the film Il postino: The Postman which I’d seen one afternoon in Manhattan a few months before and I remember the assured melody of the Mediterranean which bathes the story. The sea-rocked images (a Madonna adorned with flowers and candles launched by villagers on the gently heaving waters, fishing boats bringing in the catch) and hushed sounds of the patient waves unlocked an añoranza, a yearning for things unpresent. The feeling was physical, a fist clenching the heart. The film’s co-directors, Michael Radford and the late Massimo Troisi, uncovered a place I could name but was unable to inhabit, absence a precondition for longing. Multiple elements in critical co-dependence—Manhattan, the Mediterranean, homesickness—told a particular story. Mine, certainly, yet its particularity also hailed that of my fellow mortals, the not-me. The categorical is our pathway to the universal. That which distinguishes also connects.
       The Mediterranean is tirelessly ecumenical. Its waters admit holiday makers and locals alike.
       They are mostly white, mostly from its northern flank.
       In El Dosser they calmly mingle with Giacometti matchstick silhouettes sculpted against the sky. These are the paddle-boarders, silent denizens of the morning. If you’re lucky, you might sight dolphins, their south-gliding volumes lifting the sea to flash their dorsal fins. Kite surfers and flyers, wind surfers, exuberant and commended to soaring gusts of air, fill sea, beach and sky in the afternoons and early evening.
       The Mediterranean also receives souls fleeing places of violence, deprivation, and persecution, many never surviving the life-threatening passage from southern to European shores.
       They are mostly not white.
       A perilous threshold, the Mediterranean is a sea shaped by presences and absences, the living and the dead. The ashes of my father rest there.
Il Postino closes with a backward tracking shot over the expanding blue waters outdistancing the diminishing figure of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda standing on the ever receding shore as he ponders the death of the truer poet of the film, Mario, played by Troisi who himself died on completing the shoot. The Mediterranean utters Neruda’s and our leave-taking of Mario/Troisi. A shattering farewell.
       The Mediterranean declares my life to be sustained by paradox. It sutures the memories of others to my own and the memories are as motley as the Mediterranean itself. The ecstatic recollections of my father, his childhood and youth blessed by its waters; the devastating fall to Francoist rebels of the Mediterranean south-eastern port of Cartagena in March 1939 witnessed by my nine-year-old mother—these memories have become mine. They form part of my life’s journey, even before it began.
       The Franco dictatorship, the noxious outcome of the Spanish Civil War, forced my family to abandon Spain. London became our place of residence when I was but an infant. My father’s annual leave and school holidays meant that once a year we went back home to Valencia, his birth city, the city between sea and sky beyond El Dosser. Yes, home, the place from which we had been cast out even as we endeavoured to rebuild it in London, the not-home. The wearisome rubbing of what was British against what was not was replaced by a healing delusion. Going back home allowed the reliving, year after year, of the “it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet,” the Faulknerian fantasy of the instant before catastrophe, expulsion, loss. And so our trips home became an inarticulate effort—for we used no words to account for it—to transform defeat into a moment of not-yet-defeat. Not-home ceded to home, exile thus pre-empted.
       Throughout the summer, La Caleta, watched over by the Mediterranean, welcomed family and friends, all antifranquistas, the older ones companions in arms of my father during the civil war. Memories were unearthed, passed back and forth, uninhibited condemnation of el franquismo underpinning every encounter, every conversation. The truth was spoken and the despair of defeat, the grief of exile eased for a while. Yet the balm of truth was confined to the private. Public denunciation of the regime—what is really happening—and bringing historical truth—what really happened—into the present was to court disaster for individuals and their families. Even today, the matter of the regime’s hallmark foundational, strategic untruths subtends every strand of Spanish life. Tens of thousands of Spaniards, the vast majority victims of the Francoist repression during and after the civil war, lie in mass graves still, sunken, unidentified, unburied by their descendants. Their bodies hold the truth.
       Even now, decades after having moved from London back to Spain, with Franco long dead, I return every summer to La Caleta and the Mediterranean, a pilgrimage only interrupted in 2020 by the covid pandemic. I seek that same reconnection with the impossible hope re-ignited year after year that “there is still time for it not to begin,” that we will all live our lives in unreflective peace, unremoved.


Tomorrow we will be back in New York, the only city to which with time I might have laid an illusory claim. Not Madrid, where I was born and which I was forced to abandon at an early age; not London, where I grew up, went to school and trained as an academic, where I was always made to feel alien, unauthorized, my recombinant identity—Mediterranean physicality, north London vowels and speech cadences—vexing a British narrative of entitlement. The message was always clear: this land, perhaps any land, was not my land, echoing the franquista banishment.
       And yet.
       Look: the Mediterranean is where we meet: Woolf, Radford, Troisi, and me.
       And any and all creatures on this good earth.

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Prose in this post: © Isabel Soto
Published with the permission of Isabel Soto