Words & Photo | Sydney Padgett
Two beads of sweat drip down the curlers in Blanca’s hair brought on by the laborious preparation of beef Wellington and a particularly brutal heat wave in central Spain. The iron behind her calls out for attention with an impatient geyser of steam, filling the kitchen with yet another unbearable breath of heat. But despite the heat, Blanca maintains focus, carefully laying out cheese and the chorizo she knows her son loves so much on the handmade pastry.
In a trance, she glides across the steamy kitchen to stir the beans that have been soaking since last night. In step with her mixing, she hums the prelude to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” – the hymn to the European Union; like breathing, she seems unaware of the tune as it emanates from her exhausted breath.
In accordance with the unspoken clock that guides her day, she places two pieces of toast and a cup of coffee on the kitchen table just in time for her husband, Fernando, to nibble and chug before heading to work. With a mouth still swelling with crumbs and a single drop of coffee escaping his lips, he kisses Blanca’s forehead, “Adios Mi Vida”, and slams the door on his way out.
The house returns to silence but the kitchen reverberates with life. Six hours until lunch, five until her son and his girlfriend arrive, and four until her midday music lesson – Blanca López Fernández almost forgets to take a bite of toast and to light a cigarette before tackling the pile of clothes hanging outside the window.
Below, the city is waking up. Relative to Madrid, its neighbor just beyond the mountain, Segovia is a small city. But its proximity to the capital and medieval landmarks of incomparable origins make the pueblo a popular tourist destination, meaning the cobblestone streets are almost always as packed as Blanca’s to do list.
Like Blanca, most Segovian residents have lived in the city their entire lives. “This city nurtured and raised me and I love it for that. There is a very distinctive rhythm of life here; there is always music in the background,” she says.
Indeed, the music never seems to cease in Segovia. No matter the hour, melodies fill the streets and concerts echo throughout the plaza. And in the background, if one listens closely, distant and wanting melodies can be heard from a tucked away studio in a dark and humid apartment.
For Blanca, music is a way of life, a melody that connects people and perspectives. It brought her to Fernando, a sarcastic and bold Basque man with enough bromas to make a nun laugh and an unquenchable sweet tooth. When he moved to Segovia with his family, boasting a singing voice that could be heard from the other side of the mountain and distinctive bushy Basque eyebrows, Blanca’s friends knew they were meant for each other and would not rest until they went on a date.
“I admit, he was one of the most handsome men in Segovia, but I was not immediately impressed. In the end, his shared love for music and that magnificent voice won me over,” she says, smiling at Fernando’s surprised grumbles from the family room. Music connects Blanca to her two sons as well.
“When I was pregnant with José Félix, I was working on a Vivaldi composition with one of my students for months. And it is curious because, when he was born and he heard me playing the same composition, he reacted to it very strongly, as if he had heard it inside me. Since then, he has always had a very strong sense of rhythm.” Now a DJ, José Félix says the only time he has seen his mother upset was when he admitted he did not respect classical music.
But Blanca’s personal connection to music is much more profound and it defined a decision she made years ago that would determine the monotonous and unchangeable course of her life.
The night Blanca was born, one of the first days of May, a gentle snow storm covered the ground in a delicate powder and led to her fairly unusual Spanish name. She was the only girl of seven boys: Juan Francisco, Miguel Angel, José, Alfonso, Luis, Ignacio and Javier. Her father was the heir to a lineage of prominent Segovian citizens, his family known for his father’s political stance and wealthy business. One of the wealthiest families in the city, Blanca does not recall an abundance of love on her father’s side of the family. Memories of laughter and reunions are shrouded by fights and bickering about materialistic goods.
She began taking music classes as a young girl, a common leisure activity for wealthy families, she explains. “But it was just that – a leisure activity, never a viable career option,” she says.
Nevertheless, Blanca’s musical talent was undeniable and her wicked knack for piano composition brought her to the Madrid Royal Conservatory of music, her first step beyond the walls of Segovia. Studying under some of the most well known contemporary composers, such as Carmelo Bernaola, her affinity and her talent as a composer blossomed. Blanca was a brilliant musician and her dexterity did not go unnoticed. Just a year after studying in Madrid, the young Segovian was invited to perfect the piano and study composition in Vienna.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime, almost incomprehensible,” she says. “My world had never seemed so large.” But just as quickly as her world was magnified, it was once again contained. Her father refused to let her go. Aside from his conservative viewpoints and lack of respect for the musical profession, Blanca explains that her father feared to lose his only daughter, or perhaps the duties necessitated by his only daughter. Clearly having wrestled with his decision for decades, Blanca can only presume his intentions and attempting to answer the question of ‘why’ silences her story for a couple of minutes, lost in thought.
Fernando interrupts and reminds her that the couple had just met. “She stayed in Segovia for the love,” he says, drawing out the last word until his lips meet Blanca’s forehead.
Whether it was because of the apprehensive protectiveness of her father or the love that had recently blossomed in Segovia or even an ancient and enduring set of gender norms, Blanca did not go to Vienna. Shortly after she turned down the invitation, her father became ill and Blanca returned to Segovia to help her mother care for him. From there, the machine of Spanish conservatism caught Blanca, almost as if stepping into her first Segovian apartment with Fernando was like cuffing her ankle to a corner of the kitchen.
It is important to note that Blanca does not regret her decision to leave Madrid. Here, in this kitchen cramped with humidity and the delectable smells of beef Wellington, Blanca feels fulfilled, giving her all to this life that summoned her. “I would have loved to have studied music. But it is a very demanding career. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything else.” With that, she gestures at the kitchen and the pile of clothes behind her. “There will always be things I need to do: cook, clean, provide economically for my family, but if I didn’t have to, I would have loved to have dedicated myself to music completely.”
In a way, she gave up her life of music to be a mother and an incredible mother at that. Blanca explains that she takes after her own mother, “an extraordinary woman with a lot of courage.” It is with this immense amount of pride in her mother’s strength that she is “the most complete and most profound mother to everyone,” her youngest son, Fer explains.
Beyond her own two children, Blanca has been giving music lessons for twenty years to what must have been “half of Segovia”. And to each of her students, she offers more than her own musical expertise, but her perspective on life and her friendship.
Similarly, it is hard to sit down with Blanca for more than an hour without an interruption from one of her brothers, searching for the love and support they have been missing since their mother’s death just two years ago.
And, of course, her unwavering willingness to take in foreign host students as her own, like me. For me, Blanca offered a level of cariño – love and compassion – that I struggled to define. She does nothing unintentionally, but it is almost always effortless. She never cries and she rarely smiles, but her every move is smothered in love and purpose.
Blanca gave up everything for motherhood. When she first told me her story, I comprehended it in the context of Spain’s false progressivism, a facade that appears to be politically enlightened but still clings to age-old conceptions of race and gender. Indeed, her path was constrained by the beliefs of her male counterparts, but it was paved by Blanca nevertheless.
“For the life that I had, sickness, children, economic problems, I would have loved to escape in music, but had I chosen music, I wouldn’t have been able to care for anything or anyone else,” she says, sensing my skepticism.
After living with Blanca for two months, I only heard her playing piano once. I recognized the Beethoven Sonata, a sad and rhythmic piece, faintly emanating from her closed studio doors, so early in the morning, it was still cool. On my last day in Segovia, I ask her if she will play for me. She sighs and ashes her cigarette, examining what remains of the beef Wellington. Shaking her head and apologizing, she tells me her back hurts.