There is, in the solitary steeple of a stone church in my grandfather's village in Catalonia, a fig tree that has survived the onslaught of dry weather and bitter wind, civil war, development and lack of faith. It has prevailed in this unlikely setting for almost a century: In spring and summer it grows verdant and proud, shiny leaves pointing skyward.
I saw it the winter I traveled to Spain in search of my roots. The tree my grandfather had talked about so eloquently was brown and brittle, barely surviving.
"That's how it is every year," my relatives assured me. "Come spring it will be green and tall. It will be very much alive. That's how it has always been."
That's how it will always be. In Catalonia, continuity is an elemental force, as accepted and expected as nature and family. If this miracle of botany had not survived in this most unlikely of places, if this fig tree had died for lack of rain or soil as it should have, that would have surprised my Catalonian cousins. They live in a land of mystery and myth, and only the absence of either is unusual.
From another world, across an ocean, with a different language and inherently pragmatic, I return to the country of my ancestors and feel right at home.
The Catalonia region of northeastern Spain is a land of sea and mountains. You are never far from either, so you are forever exposed to a terrain of rolling hills and dry, furrowed earth, as well as azure shores and ribbons of bone-colored sand. It is, I remember a cousin boasting, crowned by the Pyrenees, fastened by the Mediterranean and laced with vineyards and olive orchards. In winter, even as some trees stand bare and brown in the cold, an uneven greenness stains valleys and hills. The almond trees bloom in a riot of pale pink, and in some places there is the faint smell of jasmine.
History has not been kind to this region. Successive waves of invaders conquered it. Fiercely independent, it was on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, and for most of this century, Catalonia has been dominated by the central government in Madrid -- a fact that is bitterly resented. However, its 6 million residents maintain some political autonomy and -- unlike under Francisco Franco's government -- Catalan is now freely spoken and studied in the schools.
This is where my ancestors were born, where many of my relatives still live. My grandfather spent the first 17 years of his life in La Canonja, a village near the provincial capital of Tarragona. His wife was born in bustling, cosmopolitan Barcelona, their son -- my father -- in Cuba. My mother was born in Sitges, a resort town in La Costa Brava (the Rocky Coast of the Mediterranean). I lived in Catalonia for almost a year after my family fled Castro's Cuba and before we moved to the United States, but until my return I remembered little of it except the feel of wool sweaters in the winter and the heat of wine drunk too fast.
Yet, Catalonia was always with me, a palpable presence in the foods I ate, the lullabies I heard, the passionate emotions displayed at home. My mother taught us tongue twisters in Catalan and fed us Catalonian pasta every Christmas.
My grandmother welcomed us home from school with bread and tomato soaked in oil, a Catalonian peasant's mainstay. But it was my grandfather -- irascible, opinionated, defiant, lover of parties and everything festive, believer in the impossible -- who typified Catalonia. For the first 17 years of my life, almost every night until the day he died, Gramps bid us good night in Catalan: "Bona nit, bona hora, fins dema si Deu vol." (Good night, good hour, till tomorrow if God wishes.)
But because he was a great weaver of tales, an embellisher of fact and a jokester, nobody ever believed his stories about the fig tree growing in a church steeple. Even I believed only when I saw it with my own eyes.
There are many things one must see to believe in Catalonia, for its people are very proud of their heritage, their language (which is much like French and a little like Spanish) and their culture. Yes, they speak the truth. Sometimes.
It is true that they are a creative, literary people. Barcelona is the publishing and literary capital of Spain. On April 23, the feast day of patron Saint Jordi, Catalonians exchange books and roses. The artists Salvador Dali and Joan Miro were Catalan, and Pablo Picasso, born to the south, spent much of his life there. Renowned architect Antonio Gaudi designed buildings and sculptures throughout the region. The great cellist Pablo Casals was Catalan too.
It is also true that this is a beautiful, awe-inspiring land. But then I'm biased.
The Pinars, my grandmother's cousins, live on Campo Sagrado in Barcelona, across the street from the home of my great-great-grandmother. The old family homestead, a two-story dwelling hardly bigger than an American walk-in closet, is now used by Carlos Pinar as his electrical shop.
Having lived in six homes in less than 10 years, I am fascinated by the fact that my Barcelona family has resided on the same street for four generations. Yet this is a most natural occurrence for them. They know the baker, the grocer, the florist, the bookstore owner and most, if not all, of the neighbors.
Many of them claimed they remembered me as a 4-year-old in pigtails. Or, at the very least, they said they knew of my family -- and that is very important in this side of the world. During my first days there, neighbors began a sidewalk debate on which side of the family I most look like.
"The nose is the grandmother's," said the florist.
"But the coloring, eh? The coloring?" challenged the baker. "The grandfather's!"
"And the soul," cousin Pinar remarked, with a great flourish of his arm, "is Catalan."
Barcelona, a city of 2.2 million, is full of Gothic palaces, museums and inspiring churches. Las Ramblas (the Rambles), a mile-long, tree-lined promenade that leads from the Plac a de Catalunya to the city's lively seafront, is the most famous avenue in Spain; writer Somerset Maugham called it the "most beautiful street in the world." There is also the Passeig de Colon, along the seafront; the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia, the Plaza de Toros and La Sagrada Familia, the impressive church designed by Gaudi. One can spend a week in this city and not see most of the attractions.
My husband and I saw many in a short period of time, however, and I always chose those places that I had heard the family talk about through the years. Invariably, they surpassed my relatives' descriptions. My favorites included the Tibidabo, the summit overlooking the city; Montjuic, where Don Quixote contemplated battle and where the 1992 Olympic games will be held; and the Plaza del Rey, a large courtyard where Queen Isabella welcomed Columbus upon his return from the New World.
Less than an hour's ride from Barcelona -- and another can't-miss site -- is Sitges, a whitewashed seaside village. This is where my mother spent the first 10 years of her life. It is a town an artist would have designed: dollhouses with tiled roofs, mansions facing the sea, colorful open-air cafes, flowers everywhere.
But the Sitges of my mother's childhood has little to do with the rip-roaring tourist area of today. Now the population swells from 12,000 to 100,000 during the summer and streets are closed to vehicular traffic. It has become a favorite hangout for wealthy Europeans and is home to a large international gay community.
All my mother's first cousins and surviving aunts live here, most of them on a street named for my great uncle, Antonio Muinao, just down the way from where my mother's father made his home. We stayed at cousin Eduardo Ripoll's beautiful chalet outside of town, on a hill that overlooks Sitges and the sea. In the mornings and whenever we got a chance during our visit, we sat out in the back-yard terrace to appreciate a view that would cost a million bucks -- literally -- back home.
We visited the town's Maricel del Mar Museum, with its good collection of medieval paintings and sculpture, but spent most of our time at family memorials -- the cemetery where my grandfather is buried; the church where my mother and the rest of the family were baptized; the factory, now closed, my family owned.
Wherever we stopped, my cousin Angelina introduced me to shopkeepers and passersby as "la neta del Oncle Serafi" (the granddaughter of Uncle Serafin), and the villagers immediately launched into yet another story about the grandfather I never met, the champion swimmer who was so handsome he owned every female heart in the village -- and knew it.
The highlight of my stay in Sitges was lunch with Aunt Anita and Aunt Conchita, who are in their nineties and are the only survivors of my grandfather's generation. Their house, with its high, ornate ceilings, long rooms and a tile kitchen, was as immaculate and orderly as a museum.
At one point during our visit, Tia Conchita managed to corner me in her parlor. "From America you've come," she whispered.
She took my hand in both her freckled ones and kissed the palm, where the lifeline begins. Two tears emerged from her hazel eyes and clung to her lashes. I felt my heart constrict.
From Sitges, we traveled south by train for about an hour, to La Canonja. But the La Canonja of my grandfather's day -- the town with stone houses and herds of sheep, hundreds of olive trees and dozens of hazelnut orchards -- is long gone. Developers have arrived; the town is now little more than a suburb of the state capital, Tarragona.
The area, site of the ancient Roman settlement of Tarraca, abounds in archaeological treasures. Tonet Bofaurll, my second cousin, took us on a whirlwind tour of the Roman amphitheater, museum and other ruins. But I was more interested in the strong resemblance between Tonet and my late grandfather. They had the same ruddy coloring and square jaw, the same thin lips and small, straight teeth. And like my grandfather, Tonet drank wine from the long spout of the porron expertly.
"Seeing somebody who looks so much like my grandfather is worth the trip," I told my husband one night before we fell asleep. He agreed.
"Bona nit," I said, "bona hora, fins dema si Deu vol."
"Amen to whatever you said," he replied.
. "You cannot know Catalonia without understanding Montserrat," my mother had told me before I left for Spain. She was right.
Montserrat, a majestic mountain about 40 miles northwest of Barcelona, is site of an ancient monastery that houses La Moreneta, a 12th-century statue depicting the Blessed Virgin -- the patron of Montserrat. In times of peace and war, particularly during the bloody civil strife of the 1930s, the monks of Montserrat have held fast to Catalonian culture and language.
By the time we arrived, the fog had lifted and we could see the rolling countryside for miles. Inside the cavernous church, we listened as a white-robed choir sing in voices so pure and angelic that I shivered. This is where God must come to meditate, I realized -- atop a mountain sprung from the sea, close to the heavens and with Catalonia at His feet. For more information on travel to Catalonia, contact the National Tourist Office of Spain, 665 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022, 212-759-8822. Ana Veciana-Suarez is a freelance writer in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.