My mother once lived on a street called Camino Real in Socorro, New Mexico. As I knew, real means royal, making the street name something like Royal Way. But I couldn’t address a letter to my mother without thinking Real Street, a sort of poor cousin to True Street. So I was not surprised when I first saw for myself the small plain houses, small dry yards, low curbs on a street without a proper sidewalk. I walked along in flip-flops, raising sandy dirt, the bottoms of my feet heating up and the tops burning, the street more suggestive of a dry creek bed than a royal route.
Real is pronounced Ray-AL, not much like the English royal but also not very like the English real. It actually means both. Had I never seen the word, only heard it, I’d not have fallen so easily into the error, now a habit, of thinking it always less than royal. As it is, though, whether I see or hear the Spanish word, it’s hard not to think of a scrappy little mongrel, like Mark Twain’s pauper in princely attire. Even here in Spain, when I encounter the word in a title or name, an aura of tarnished reality attaches to the whole phrase. The familia real (royal family), the Teatro Real (royal theater), the Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy), the águila real (our golden eagle), Madrid’s enormous Palacio Real (royal palace), sitting on the western edge of the city, above the Campo del Moro gardens. The palace stone is white, but the building is made somber by its size. That’s reality you can’t argue with, and I think again, real, not royal.
In Jerez de la Frontera, a city in the south of Spain with a name fantastically western and old-world all at once, the Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre has its headquarters. The horses are Andalusian, called Pura Raza Española or Pure Spanish horses. Once ridden as war steeds, still used in bullrings, they are both smart and agile enough to learn dance steps for tourists, but at a mention of the Real Escuela, I picture a quarter horse saddled for ranch work.
Yet sometimes real and royal happily coincide. On a visit to Madrid this winter, I stood on a chilly afternoon in front of the Royal Palace. Behind it, the sun was setting, the sky purple and gold. Such a sunset is not quite as common as the day, but almost, and yet ever so princely.