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Better Than Fiction


by Maureen McVeigh

On my 40th birthday, a seaside town in Spain sacrificed a virgin. That’s how I tell the story, anyway. Every July 16th, villages like Salobreña, where my family vacationed that year, celebrate the Virgen del Carmen, the patron saint of sailors. Devotees parade an elaborate statue of this interpretation of the Madonna from the local Catholic Church, through town, to the shore. There, fishermen load her into a boat decorated with flowers and lanterns. Then they sail along the coast as a reminder that while she might usually landlub it, her holy homework is protecting seafarers. When I discovered this festival, I wanted in. I studied abroad in Madrid during college, so I knew the Spanish gift for turning piety into a party.


Seeing the mother of God on a motorboat became my mission for the trip. Vacation planning soothes my organizing soul and revs up my wanderlust. Comparing hotels, making itineraries, cross-referencing review sites; I get all tingly just thinking about it. If I put as much effort into the gym as I do into Google Trips, I could try out for the Olympics.


With a dedication that really would have helped me in college, I started my research. At one point, I had so many browser windows open about the Virgin Mary, my husband wondered if I was joining a nunnery. Despite my diligence, though, a specific start time and location for the festival eluded me. Fodor’s Travel site only listed the date. Rick (Steves, that is. We’re on a first-name/doesn’t-know-my-name basis.) didn’t mention it at all. A travel blog indicated the boat launches “into the water.” I’m no Christopher Columbus, but I believe that’s true of most boat launches. The lack of precision created a gaping hole in my dossier. Yes, I print our schedule, tickets, and reservations into a packet and call that a dossier like it’s for the Secretary of State. Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it.


The Spanish would have told me to worry “mañana,” which literally means “tomorrow” and figuratively means “Would you relax already and enjoy yourself?” They value spending time together, especially with family over leisurely meals. I’d loved this attitude while living with a local family twenty years prior but had forgotten it. Instead, my mañana attitude was stuck in reverse. I neglected the present to fixate on the future.


We did have family time planned, though. In what we considered a coup, my brother’s wife and I had convinced our families to hold our annual visit in Spain. It didn’t take much convincing, especially since they live in snowy Finland, but we were still pretty proud to pull it off. We even coordinated with friends of ours, who were traveling through Portugal and Spain with friends of theirs, to meet us. That made a total of eight adults and seven children invading the small, whitewashed town on the Costa Tropical. My travel planning-heart could hardly handle it when we all found each other at a flamenco show, as arranged.


On our second day in Salobreña, I made my husband Chevy Chase the roundabout when I spotted the tourist office. In my defense, this did not much alter our chaotic driving style. European traffic circles are incredibly efficient, mostly at increasing the confused tourist to annoyed local ratio. After we escaped the circle, he waited in the car with our one-year-old while I talked to the handsome Spanish official for a bit longer than was absolutely necessary. The raven-haired, long eyelashed, adorably accented tourism guru drew a circle on the map showing where the festival began. Based on the level of detail of the map and the size of the circle, this included half the Spanish coastline.


When I returned to the car, my husband asked if I finally had the exact time and location I wanted.


“He gave me a definitive start time,” I said.


“Great,” my husband replied, patting my knee, happier to be done searching than finding.


“He said six. Our apartment rental agent said five.” Our friend’s AirBnB host, who looked old enough to have known the Blessed Mother, insisted on seven-thirty. “At least the Spanish official was cute,” I sighed.


My husband laughed at me and popped the tiny stick shift into gear. He knew me well enough to know I was most excited about all the free maps and guidebooks I’d scored. Besides, the day before, I had pointed out that the Europeans are topless beachgoers, so this added a little balance to our sightseeing.


I triangulated the conflicting information, a task rivaling Einstein developing his theory of relativity, while my husband drove us to Granada. (That was a day trip during our vacation, en route to which I researched another excursion: Trip Planning Triple Word Score!) He marveled at the cliffside highway’s breathtaking views over the sea. The baby pointed out all of the trucks. We were each in our happy place, which one wouldn’t suspect is a Fiat Punto.


“Why don’t we just go to the beach and look around?” my husband suggested.


I knew he didn’t mean to disturb my planning algorithms, and while his idea was elegantly simple, the Salobreña beach is not. El Peñon, a massive rock formation that juts into the water, as expected from its vaguely phallic name, divides the shoreline. The coast then undulates, forming coves, accessible only by driving through town. My brother and his family hadn’t rented a car, so we needed to find the right spot or shuttle children from beach to beach, which seemed cruel to them and local commuters. If I wanted to see a floating effigy, I had to find the exact starting spot.


A few days later, on the morning of my birthday, I had no plan. My nephews taught their little sister and my son how to hunt lizards inside the apartment, swearing this was normal in seaside towns. My brother brewed us strong Spanish coffee, and we took our time enjoying it and catching up. In deference to the 110-degree heat and to cousins enjoying their mostly fruitless search, I surrendered. Our leisurely morning turned into a lazy afternoon, and we finally emerged from the air-conditioning at exactly 6 pm. In Spain, this is about the end of lunchtime. Restaurants on the beach had finished serving the main midday meal and only offered drinks until dinner, which begins anywhere from 7 pm to three days later. My older nephew was eight, and that’s young even by European standards to have a cocktail as an appetizer. We tried to appreciate local tradition but still had kids to feed.


In desperation, I asked the host of Restaurante El Peñon for a reservation as soon as his restaurant opened. We needed fourteen chairs and two highchairs in less than an hour, but he said, “Si, claro,” a wonderful Spanish saying for “Yes, clearly. Now would you relax already?”


While we waited, I looked around the beach, in one final attempt to catch the festival. Sunbathing on the sand or sipping drinks on terraces, nobody seemed to be preparing for the arrival of a saint. But my family and friends were together, on my birthday, in one of my favorite countries. So, I sacrificed the Blessed Mother’s boat ride for an amazing meal on the beach with the people I loved. This was basically my visionboard birthday, so I decided maybe I’d sacrifice a virgin for my 50th as well. Sangria, manchego, and sharing so many small plates the waiter told us to stop ordering made me almost forget the one plan I couldn’t make happen. The town’s castle perched on a rocky overhang in the distance, like we’d entered a postcard. Small waves splashed behind us, an almost tranquilizing soundtrack. I slid off my new Spanish sandals and dug my toes into the soft sand.


The kids bounced back and forth between the table and the tide pools beside us, triumphantly showing us tiny sea creatures they had caught. That explained why the seafood paella tasted so fresh. I hadn’t felt any particular angst about my milestone birthday, but if I had, that dinner would have cured it. Then, as the sun began its slow summer descent, a crowd formed along the shoreline.


“Maybe we didn’t miss it,” my husband said.


Everyone faced across the cove, but I wouldn’t let myself believe it until a flotilla of small colorful boats splashed into the sea. Most had motors, but some were propelled by paddles. They appeared to be well used work and pleasure crafts, but each one was decorated with bright floral garland, as if in their Sunday best. The most important vessel, carrying the virgin, had a fire burning onboard behind her. With flames generally being unusual on wooden ships, this sight proved way cooler than a sacrifice. We joined the locals and other tourists on the rocky shore to watch the progression. Sensing the excitement, and loving ships almost as much as trucks, our son squealed and smacked his tiny hands together with glee. My husband and I smiled at him in that new parent way, like our genius child had just invented clapping.


Everyone congratulated me on planning a great birthday, but I hadn’t, really. I had tried. I’d read blogs, guidebooks, and maps, as well as talked to residents and tourism professionals, and discovered nothing. Then, by accident, we ended up with front row seats. When fireworks exploded off El Peñon, just overhead, it felt like my cartoon lightbulb moment. Why was I so intent on seeing a Spanish festival without appreciating Spanish culture? Sometimes mañana is the best time, I realized, as the ornate statue floated toward us.

Maureen McVeigh’s essays and short stories recently appeared in Sonder Midwest, Coldnoon, Mothers Always Write, and Calyx. She teaches Creative Writing at West Chester University and has taught for the University of New Orleans MFA program in Cork, Ireland.

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