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Coming of age in Granada

There is much to learn in this colorful Spanish city, not only for an American student honing his maturity abroad, but also for his parents.

Published March 7, 2004

[Photo: AP]
Hilly Granada, Spain, now boasts the first new mosque — where the white tower rises in the center of this picture — to be built in Spain in more than 500 years. It opened last July.

[Photo: courtesy of Audrey E. Hoffer]

Marin Hoffer and his roommates in Granada, Spain, from left, Ander, Manu and Marie.

GRANADA, Spain - A hard rain is falling at midnight when we step off the train and into the arms of our son.

We are here to visit Marin during his fall semester abroad and peek into his life.

Ron and I don't know what to expect from our almost grownup but still playful child, who will soon turn 21: Will he welcome us with delight or silently count the days till our departure? Is he really going to classes or are we paying for one endless summer vacation?

With his confidently fluent Spanish, Marin takes us to the hotel, checks us in, plunks our bags on the flowered bedspread, then unpacks a fresh set of clothing from his bicycle bag and asks, "Do you guys mind if I take a quick shower?"


First day

Granada, two hours south of Madrid, is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in southeast Spain.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella chose to be buried in the city, an ambiguous honor today. They possessed the wisdom in 1492 to finance exploration of the New World and the streak of evil to put in place the notorious Inquisition.

"This is our home," tall, good-looking Manu says with an English accent the next afternoon when we come to see Marin's apartment and roommates. With a kiss on both cheeks, Manu leads us down a long, narrow hallway. Manu, 20, is from Brittany, France.

Each of the four young people has a room, sufficient but tiny, like the bathroom. We understand why Marin asked to shower at our hotel. He takes two jackets from his closet to make room for ours. How polite, I think.

"Bienvenido," welcomes Ander, 23, oldest of the roommates. From the Basque region in northern Spain, he speaks Euskera, his local language, plus Spanish and German.

"Everything we need is on our street," Marin proudly says, "and it's only four minutes to school! We walk everywhere!"

I repress a smile, because this is the same Marin who at home never walks farther than from our front door to the car.

"See you guys at 8 for dinner," he says, as his father and I leave.

Ping, goes my cell phone, announcing a text message at 7:45 p.m.: "forgot abt project, can't meet," it reads.

Hmmm, typical of Marin, I think. Work is always the last thing on his mind.

At 10:10 p.m., we hear a knock on our hotel room door before Marin barges in. Here for another shower? No, this time it's "I'm starving!"

So, of course, the dutiful parents go off into the chilly but busy streets, where the tapas bars are packed. We get wine and mini sandwiches of artichoke hearts, stuffed mushrooms and utterly delectable breaded sardines. Suddenly Marin asks, "Do you like it here? I feel responsible for your happiness."

Wow. This is new.

Next day

Breakfast at Cafi Lopez-Merquita Pasteleria, wonderfully busy at 9:30. The sounds you hear first are the hsssszzz of the espresso machine and clanking of saucers on the glass case atop the long bar, in which the tapas and sweets are displayed.

Three 60ish waiters wearing short-sleeved white shirts, red vests and black ties handle a continuous influx of patrons.

They move quickly, hands flying in opposite directions to set a coffee spoon on the saucer, then a cup with espresso, then hot milk from a white pitcher, to serve cafe con leche. Another hand reaches for a toasted, thickly buttered croissant.

The crowd is a mixture of hip professionals and dignified retirees. One elegant, 50-something woman with dangly earrings parades in wearing a pale yellow blazer, hot pink crepe skirt, red leather boots and a pastel chiffon scarf casually swept around her neck.

With grace and elan, the women of Granada can give scarf lessons. The city is drenched in a rainbow of scarves, wraps and shawls.

Day 3

Ping goes the cell phone at 11:30 a.m.: "gonna' run some errands, then let's meet for lunch."

Ping, at 2:35 p.m.: "meet cor Sacrista de Sta Escolastica now."

The day is gray, but the college kids pouring down the block are a colorful bunch. A boy in a bright yellow sweat shirt. A girl in a long black leather coat. Another in a zippered, purple-green sweater showing off a blue belly tattoo. Bags on their backs, books under the arms, cell phones to the ear. They speak a host of languages.

Marin leads us to Taberna Salinas, a popular place with blocky tables and brown-blue walls. The ceiling is lined with dried hams in various stages of aging and color hanging from a hook by their legs.

Cute Isma, with a tongue ring and long blond ponytail, serves us boiling octopus stew in a clay dish and veal stew with a generous number of floating pieces of garlic.

Unexpectedly Marin turns and asks, "Mom, do you think you can help me with a resume while you're here? I want to get an internship next semester."

Another first.

Day 4

On the evening of the fourth day, Ron and I suggest a concert in the Auditoria Manuel de Falla.

This is a gorgeous, contemporary concert hall, high on a hillside. In the crisp dark air, it feels as if we are walking toward a magnificent castle.

A lively throng fills the foyer: shoulders touching among clusters of friends, warm embraces, double-cheek kisses.

Later, the night air is moist with light rain. We join the Granadinos heading down the hill to the brightly lit bars. At midnight, we are in La Taberna de Gamboa, eating tapas of tomatoes and anchovies, standing amid the smoke and cliques of friends chattering and drinking. There's nothing quite like this public social intimacy at home.

Ping, 12:02 a.m. and I send a message to the son near my side: "Hey Birthday Boy! Hope you have a fab day. You're a proper grownup now. Big kiss."

We raise our glasses to salute his 21st birthday and laugh at the sign overhead proclaiming 16 the legal age. "Too bad," says Marin with a smile: "All those fake IDs, down the drain!"

Day 5

Walking through the medieval palace fortress Alhambra, built by the Moors, Marin says, "The Arab style is subtle on the outside, lush on the inside."

And indeed the interior walls are decorated with intricate mosaics, honeycomb vaulting and lacelike stucco. Once lavishly colored, now they are mostly shades of blue.

At the Generalife gardens nearby, the water fountains still flow by gravity, aromatic herbs still grow and the small fruit trees bear oranges and pomegranates.

Wandering in the hills in the fragrant chill of autumn, Marin says, "I'm thinking I'll save some of the money I don't use here for back home."

Wow, progress.

Day 6

On a bright, sunny Sunday morning, Plaza de Bib-Rambla is the place to be if you are a pigeon or a small child. Hordes of both flutter across the cobblestones. Little arms flying, wings flapping. It is hard to tell who is chasing whom.

At noon, church bells ring. All the pigeons lift off at once and settle on the fountain in the plaza's center and on the heads of the four fanciful gargoyles spurting water.

All the while around the plaza's edge, floresterias tend their flower booths.

Ping, 2:30 p.m.: "wanna come to our apt for dinn tom 9:00?"

"Yes," we shoot back. "Will bring wine, flowers"

Last night

In the living room, two small tables are pushed together. They're set with a mishmash of plates, cups and silverware. A bowl of olives is near a plate of mussels. Local legend Vicente El Granaino is playing the guitar, mandolin and laud, the three instruments most typical of Spain.

"You guys sit here with Marie, where it's warm," Marin directs as he lifts the camel tablecloth and points out the glowing lamp hanging underneath. "We bought this to keep warm while we eat."

"I also got these," he says proudly, raising a leg to show off brown, furry slippers, "and now my feet are never cold."

I squeal inside but don't dare remark that he wouldn't be caught dead in those at home, let alone in the campus dorm.

We get to use the beautiful, blue-stemmed silverware, a gift to Marie from her grandmother. Marin uses a mismatched knife and fork.

Marie, 19, the fourth roommate, is a pretty French girl with long, matted ginger hair and translucent skin.

Wine flows, and Manu and Marin bring out an impressive succession of courses.

Ander comes in at 10:40, after his last class. Besides morning classes at 8:30, there are many evening ones, too.

Conversation is in four languages. Marin alone speaks only two; three is the norm, four not so unusual. Isti, 20, a friend from Austria, speaks seven. The conversation tonight includes:

"Let's go to Morocco after Christmas."

"I wonder which of us has been to the most countries?"

"I've been to 13."

"My passport is full."

"What about the U.S.?" I pipe up.

"I'm in no rush," says Marie. "I want to see places in the world that will change before it's too late. The U.S. will always be there."

These are our future leaders, I think, who will set the policies for peaceful coexistence. Their vision will blend borders between east and west. And they'll have learned to do so at the dinner table.

We raise our glasses and toast: Salud, dinero y amor! Health, wealth and love!

In a gentle drizzle on the last morning, the taxi driver loads our bags and we race from the hotel.

The trip is over. It was great. Then, ping, at 10:28 a.m.: "thanks for coming to visit. had fab time; you guys rock. love marin. xoxo"

Ahhhhhhh. I close my eyes. Icing on the cake. Granada has put the finishing touches on my sweet little boy, making him a young man.

- Freelance writer Audrey Hoffer lives in Washington. Marin Hoffer has returned this semester for his junior year at the University of Miami.

[Last modified March 5, 2004, 10:44:30]


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