Clara In Valencia

8th March 2020

As we walked down the sunny side of the street she described her student life, unfolding before her twenty-year-old eyes.

It’s a magical wonderland of death’, she said, excitedly. 

I was excited too.

Here we were, niece and uncle, both adults now, each still enjoying the other’s company. It marked a new way of seeing my own family-life unfold. I had experienced the slow migration of my nieces and nephews to adulthood as a kind of loss, temporarily forgetting that we could also be friends. 

I walked into the refrigerated area’, Clara continued, amused, ‘and there were twenty severed heads of horses’. 

The scene was so cinematic that I wanted to linger. But she had more to tell of her new life in this new city. Of canine dissections, of lectures and lecturers, of girls’ nights around wine, peppered by the boys who might arrive late and make the chat and drink continue to 4am. Each element a part of the magical mystery tour that, in four years time, would make her a vet.  

We decided to make Saturday our ‘See Valencia’ day, and started with a breakfast of toast and jamón in the grounds of an extraordinary exhibition.

Spanish museums are quixotic in their themes: there is no detail of Iberian life that might not merit a compelling, double-down geek fest. Tomorrow it would be the Museum Of Miniature Soldiers. But today, it was the Museum Of Silk. 

We slowly meandered through its rooms, displays and live demonstrations.

The story of silk is the story of a moth’s life, interrupted.

This signature produce of the Kingdom of Valencia, which brought it wealth and status since the 14th century, depended on insects, trees and women.

The silkworm larva, after consuming prodigious quantities of mulberry leaves, spins itself into a cocoon over 24 hours. This beautifully crafted, 2 centimetre-in-diameter lozenge cradles the pupating insect for 14 days before, normally, it gnaws its way out into the adult moth world.

But, through the intervention of the silk-makers, the adults never get to take their turn in the sun. There is gold in the unbroken cocoon.

Each is plucked from the twigs on which they are suspended, and immersed in boiling water. Through laborious (and largely female) manual unravelling, 1,300 metres of filament is harvested from every cocoon, in a continuous thread.

Despite, or perhaps because of all of its work, the moth must die.

The thread is then dyed using various flora and fauna [woad for indigo and molluscs for purple were my personal favourites]. Being appropriately coloured, the hand-weaving of silk then takes place, using elaborately engineered wooden looms of precise angles, lines and intersections. Through weft and warp these mesmeric hand-powered machines bring silk, the most noble of fabrics, fully to life. And all of this in the 14th century. 

Valencia is a jewel of a city. Big enough to offer choices; smart enough to have invested in great transport infrastructure; lucky enough to have avoided the slash-and-burn tourism of Barcelona to the north.

Cycling languidly to the beach, we discuss what we have seen. Silk was an extraordinary thing – lying at the juncture of beauty, mathematics and suffering. We speak of the complexity of things; and how there is bad in good, and good in bad.

As we pedal, I spy an opportunity for diversion. Ahead of us is a little bit of bustle. A wedding.

We come to a halt in time to see the bride emerge in front of a stately Catholic church. She is beautiful in a pearl taffeta train, an air of nervous joy as she takes her father’s hand.

We park the bikes and enter the church by a side entrance, to observe at a distance. The choir gives way to a Handel melody, sung by a soprano whose voice lifts and delicately accompanies the bride as she slowly proceeds to the front. There is a glow of delight in the faces of her guests.

“Lascia ch’io pianga, mia cruda sorte. E che sospiri la liberta”

We take a moment to savour the scene, and silently depart. 

‘I love that tune, said Clara, once we had resumed our cycle.

‘So do I’, I replied. ‘I heard it last at the remembrance service of my friend’. His partner had sung it. An extraordinary act of courage and grace, I’d thought.   

“Let me weep over my cruel fate, And sigh that I should lose my freedom”

We tried to reconcile these two moments, in which the same music was chosen. Did the bride know the meaning of the words? Did my dead friend’s partner realise how beautiful was the melody?

We had paella in a restaurant overlooking the sea. There we spoke of life and exchanged stories. 

My first time in Valencia was in the early 90s when I was pursuing a Spanish guy who lived by the port. He lived on the Calle Jose Benlliure, and that address had stuck in my head some thirty years later. I described how he called the giant cranes of Valencia’s port ‘jirafas’, their long necks stooped in chained labour. We spoke of Clara’s life. I took such joy in hearing about the spreading of her fresh wings, and where they might carry her. 

That evening, after a siesta and recharge for ourselves and our smartphones, we headed to a concert in Valencia’s old granary building. We sat in the front row, all the better to study the artists and their art. First Hayden for three strings, then Beethoven. The sound of a protest for animal rights outside, using drums, penetrated the space every now and then.

Afterwards, we strolled back to where I was staying, meandering through lamp-lit streets, fully alive on this Saturday night. We had gotten a lot done in our day together. Some of it planned. Some of it not. Weaving a unique pattern of our own making. Memories, one day to be worn. 

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