Travel Essays

Slaying the Dragon

“You and I,” he whispered, and the two nouns sounded so lovely together, “we are the best story I know.”

Odd, I thought afterward, even though I was charmed at the time. I can think of many better stories. As a student of literature, I knew better. As a young woman in love for the first time, I didn’t. Then again, the Catalan was a bit of a romantic. He was the kind of boy who loved the stories where the knight saved the fair damsel, much like the tale of Saint George, known in Catalan as Sant Jordi. In a land far away, a dragon terrorized a village by devouring its sheep. Once the sheep were reduced to bones, the dragon turned its appetite to fair maidens, who were sacrificed by drawing lots. One day the unhappy victim was a beautiful princess. The monarch begged her to be spared, but to no avail. She would be the dragon’s next meal—that is, until good Saint George happened to be in the neighborhood and slew the dragon, saving the princess and winning her heart. To honor Saint George’s day on the Christian calendar, men have given roses to women since medieval times every April 23 in Catalonia.

In 1923, a Barcelonese bookseller promoted the day to commemorate the simultaneous deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. The publishing capital of Spain and Catalonia ate up the new holiday, La Diada de Sant Jordi, and adopted the day of the book and the rose. Initially, women received roses and men received books, but the holiday modernized so that books were mutually exchanged. As a sucker for flowers and a lover of books, I yearned for Sant Jordi’s arrival. I spent the morning of the holiday picking up produce from the little shop down the hill and buying a warm baguette and cuddling it under my arm. My head swiveled toward each corner shop selling books and red roses as I hauled my bags back up the hill to my apartment. A single rose easily cost three or four euros, but that day everyone seemed to forget that Spain was in an economic crisis and bought roses like it was the only way to express love.

My Catalan boy presented me with a rose when I met with him in Plaça Catalunya, the city center of Barcelona. It was a perfect red rose in cellophane, tied with a red and yellow striped ribbon to mimic the design on the Catalan flag. People rushed in and out of the large stores that circled the plaza, and a crowd carrying books and roses jaunted to and from of the old city. My Catalan boy took my hand and explained to me that there were four important places to see the full extent of the Sant Jordi celebration in the city. He had already called dibs on being capitán for the day, and his excitement was contagious, so I let him guide me through the crowds in his city.

First was Portal de l’Àngel. From the wide grid of the streets in the enlargement of the city, the roads grew narrow and vertiginous as we strode into the old city. The pedestrian street was covered with people: lovers holding hands, gaggles of friends buying each other roses and books, and families herding children along. I pulled the Catalan boy’s hand as I stretched toward the stacks of books. The Catalan words were unfamiliar, but I still gravitated toward the smell of paper, my free hand reaching toward the tight bindings and smooth covers. Books, I was sure, were meant to be loved and dog-eared, written and highlighted in, spine stretched, and pages stained with coffee and tomato sauce. Titles were to be caressed, and covers were to be dented—this was love, I thought. Love did not strip books of their purity but added character; books that were most loved bore the marks of their love.

I wanted to give my Catalan boy a book. I craved to be a part of the celebration, and a gift book always seemed to me like an intimate present, a sign that one knew what words would enrapture the recipient. But I was terrible at giving gifts and hated surprises. He lived for surprising me; he loved convoluted plans ending with the unexpected, and he gave gifts based on desire, not need. The Catalan boy always seemed to know what I wanted while I tried to understand what he needed. As I struggled and fought all the way down the rabbit hole, he fell fast in love. Such was the nature of his heart, open and affectionate. I tiptoed around love as if it were a sleeping dragon. So I quizzed him what kind of books he liked as we walked toward our second stop, the Cathedral.

“Classic literature? Science fiction? Fantasy?”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know. People are very particular about their books, you know.”

“What kind of books do you think I like?”

“Decent ones?” I guessed. He frowned. “The only book I have ever heard you talk about is Harry Potter.”

“Well, there you go: I like Harry Potter.”

“Everyone who has a soul likes Harry Potter. That clue does not help me. What is another book you like?”

The Da Vinci Code.”

“So suspense? Mystery? A little bit of action?”

You guess. I know what kind of books you like.”

“That’s not fair. I always talk to you about what I’m reading. Why can’t you just tell me?” I demanded and he laughed. “You’re being difficult.”

I knew he was testing me. He did that a lot, and initially I couldn’t blame him for it because it was sometimes difficult to know where I stood. We had been seeing each other for nearly three months, and each hurdle and plot twist was proof to him that we were meant to be. On some days, however, he wondered how our story could exist outside of the hardback cover of a book, and he prodded: Why did you pick me? How could you care for me? I could never answer these questions for him with as much elegance as he did, but on those days, he needed an answer. I naively thought a gift book could show my answer better than words could. He had been purposefully enigmatic on the subject of books and wanted me to prove my love by unknowingly knowing which one would make him tick. I peered over his shoulder as he looked at books; I picked up every book that he set down, eyeing the synopses, titles, and authors, looking for clues.

We wound through the streets to our third landmark, Plaça del Rei, where we stopped for lunch at an Italian restaurant. I continued to jab, and he continued to dodge. Couples all around us enjoyed their food while I grew more and more frustrated. A rose was so simple, so pretty, so easy, but books were an entirely different realm. All I wanted was a straight answer.

“I would rather be happy than right,” he once told me after an argument.

“Being right makes me happy,” I retorted petulantly. I needed to be right. I needed to pick the book that he wanted.

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By the time we reached our final destination at the Ramblas, Sant Jordi was in full swing. The pedestrian strip down the center of the promenade was lined with tables of books, waving Catalan flags, and large stands covered in roses of all colors: apricot yellow, scarlet red, pale yellow dipped in pink, creamy white, blood orange, dusty pink, lavender purple, orange and pink nectarine, sunshine yellow. Propaganda for an independent Catalan nation swung on banners—Vote for the Left! Free country, alive language!—and people pushed through crowds with book-filled bags. At long last, my Catalan boy reluctantly set down Dan Brown’s newest book, The Lost Symbol. He had been trying to read more English because I refused to speak to him in my native tongue unless I was too angry to speak Spanish.

“Do you want that one?”

“Oh, I don’t need a book,” he said softly.

“I am not asking you if you need the book, I’m asking if you want it. Would you like it?”

“I have been wanting to read it…” he reluctantly admitted and without another word, I picked up the book and walked to the cashier. Once the transaction was completed, I handed him the book.

“It’s yours. Feliç Diada de Sant Jordi.” He looked down at the cover and then up at me a few times in confusion. I grew nervous. “What is it?”

“No girl has ever given me a book before,” he blushed, and I felt the tension uncoil from my shoulders.

“Well,” I said, kissing him, “I suppose there’s a first time for everything.”

There were many firsts, in fact, with my Catalan boy. My only love before him had been his city. I loved places and things at a full gallop, but I loved people at a wary tiptoe. I didn’t know that love could leave the door open when it left, so I made it linger in the threshold, only to invite it in for meals and hot showers. I didn’t know that people loved people the same way that books were to be loved. I realized after the fact that I needed a book from him. He was a modern, intelligent boy, but he was a boy. Boys gave flowers. Our young love blossomed then wilted so slowly that we hardly realized that it was gone by the time all the petals had fluttered off. Men, I learned, gave books. Men did not go searching for dragons to slay.

But my Catalan boy did pour through that book and loved it, cracking open the spine on the metro to and from school. He liked it when I read aloud in English; he said that I sounded more affectionate. He was not short on affection and called me many terms of endearment: I was his sky, his sun, his goofball, his princesa, but I was not the princess in the tale of Saint George. I slew my own dragons. I bought myself books when I wanted them. I also never let myself need him, but perhaps that is not something to boast of. The Catalan boy and I were a good story, but I knew better ones. I knew Daisy and Gatsby, I knew Jake and Brett Ashley. I knew Romeo and Juliet, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Finny and Gene, Jane and Mr. Rochester, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, Kitty and Levin. As a literature student, I knew better. But as a young woman in love for the first time, I adored that perfect red rose and brought it back with me from Spain to California, carrying it in my luggage until all I had left was a stem, a reverse plotline retracing the steps when he and I were we.

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