En Busca de Nuestra Casa: In Search of Our House

Arrival anywhere, no matter how similar it may be to your home country, always feels like going down one of those horrid waterslides—the ones at waterparks shaped and colored like intestines, where children are screaming and your bathing suit ends up half-way up your arse, you get thrown around a couple of not-as-soft-as-they-should-be plastic corners, and then dumped into a pool that is colder than you thought it would be, or too chlorinated, or not quite chlorinated enough.

So goes our arrival in Sevilla. We are dumped unceremoniously into the Plaza Del Salvador at around 5:30pm. It’s Sunday. The square is almost like Spain-of-my-dreams: there are orange trees ripe with fruit. Two churches stand across from each other like an old couple married hundreds of years, their faces worn and bored and luminous and so different from each other. Yet they have somehow taken each other on, the baroque nose of the husband complimenting the gothic chunk of his wife. The sky is a fairytale winter blue, and it’s about 60 degrees outside.

(Where’s the bathing suit up-the-arse? you’re wondering—don’t worry, we’re there.)

The cabbie does not have change. He runs to a nearby café to get some. This starts a traffic jam and everyone is honking at us. He uses this chaos to stiff me on el cambio, which I don’t realize until a few seconds later, after he’s screeched away into the maze of old Sevilla, and we are walking across the plaza, which is littered with empty beer bottles. Wadded up balls of newspaper are blowing around like tumbleweed. We dodge a pack of mangy, fighting dogs. There is some serious mystery moisture on the ancient cobbles. I’m trying to avoid it but of course, I’m dragging all six pairs of shoes I couldn’t leave behind.

We miss the turn to our apartment, and we stand around stupidly for a moment, thinking, there was no right turn back there, was there? There was: it’s an alley the width of a ruler.  I breathe in that smell that only ancient cities have: part plaster and moth ball and sewer and flowers and now oranges and smoked pork and all the thousands of people who have passed through here on their way home.

Inside, our attic apartment is a breath of tranquil air. It’s beautiful. There is a terrace—actually two terraces (terri?). The tiles of the terrace feel sunbaked on my feet. The owner has decorated the apartment with care and a local touch that is both exotic and homey. Our bedroom is drenched in light from the sun that’s still somehow above the horizon. Is this where duende shows up? I’m wondering. Not yet—we are still too jetlagged and travel-shocked to truly see this place with our eyes open. Duende is not that easy.

Tonight, instead, he appears in his folklore costume of old to imp all over our new home. He gets into the wiring just when I plug in my hairdryer and blows the electricity in the whole apartment with a sturdy woooom. (I used the transformer and the adaptor! I did!) He decides we will not have fast Internet, not today, something we stressed that we needed more than water. He determines we won’t go to sleep (It’s only 6pm back home!) and keeps us awake with all our anxieties for company: Should we have done this? What were we thinking? We should have had babies and moved to Waltham. We don’t belong here, and so on.

How is it that after so many travels (36 countries and counting) a little city in Spain still manages to make me feel so dumb-footed? But this is the task of traveling, of becoming extranjeros. Literally, foreign ones.

And while we can find plenty of evidence of the country we left yesterday lurking around (it is western Europe after all) we are now making a shift. We have no friends here. We have left our house with others living in it. We will need to seriously get real about learning Spanish (I have used nothing but my poor high school Spanish in the past 12 hours –shout out Señora Cunningham!). We will eventually fall asleep, and in waking, start to discover Sevilla with fresh eyes, recalling the reason we left home in the first place, that thirst for another location, time, culture, people, spirit. Duende.

I will frequently include words of poets working in the Spanish language on this blog, either translating them myself or utilizing the good translations of others.  Today, I think it’s appropriate to evoke Argentine poet Juan Gelman and his poem “La Extranjera,” provided in his English.

La Extranjera

The foreigner doesn’t know
that her blood is her house, that
all her birds
can only sing there and open
wings to her summer and pounce
reach, launch, rise,
like a thirst for the world
that you cannot turn off.

What Hannah Montana Knows About Duende

Today, a triumph and a discovery (or 2):

1) The Hannah Montana hairdryer at El Corte Ingles is only €8 today, not €9 like it was yesterday. I successfully buy this with a conversation entirely in Spanish.

Esta, es ocho euros hoy, si? Y Ayer, nueve euros?

Si, si.

Bueno. Puedo comparlo aqui?

Si, bueno! (She said a whole lot more than this, but these were the only two words I grasped. Trying to speak and listen to Spanish with my limited skills is like sifting water.)

And so I am the proud owner of a hairdryer with an image of Miley Cyrus rocking out on it, made in the P.R.C. (instead of Made in China, everything is made in the P.R.C. here, People’s Republic of China) that works in all Euro sockets. Woot! No more gross flat hair. And really—this is important. The women here are gorgeous and have some serious pelo.

2) We have finally found the market. Actually, dos mercados. I can not tell you how hard we looked for the Mercado Encarnación. I asked for help. I wandered around. It turns out the old mercado has been moved into what is currently a construction site– a monstrous one at that.

The Metropol Parasols— the wonderland dream of German architect J. Mayer that has transformed what was once a functioning, urban square into a tangle of paths, a lot of noise of jackhammers and whatnot, and strange giant mushroom-structures towering over the city. Eventually, (33 million euros later) this will all make sense and be a contemporary wonder, but for now, it successfully obscured the fresh pollo I wanted to buy for days. We must have circled the plaza a hundred times. But if there’s one thing we have here, it’s time. And persistence. So we went back. And today, we found it.

We also found another market, over the river in Triana. Sevilla’s cornucopia has been cracked. The Triana market reminds me of what Encarnación must have felt like before Meyer’s project. All the vendors were announced with tile signs– a mark of both their longevity and the Triana nieghborhood custom, world famous tile / ceramic work. (Much of the broken pottery found in Rome’s Monte Testaccio hailed from Triana.)

You can buy pretty much anything local and fresh here, including rabbits hanging by their cute furry feet, pheasants, squid rushed up from the Medditerreanean, verduras galore, pollo, and of course, jamón pata de negra: ham from the black hoof, which is a true Iberian delicacy. Don’t even try and compare it to prosciutto or you will be met with the stare of el toro. A whole ham (hoof and all) starts at around €250.

I bought one breast of chicken successfully in Spanish. God bless all the nice Sevillans who speak to me slowly and patiently with plenty of body language. Because of you, we had one hell of a cordon blue tonight, made with the cheapest local cheese: gouda.  Yum. Gracias, mi nuevo amigos.

The kind woman who sold me the most delicious breast of chicken.

This Flower of Light Over the Palms

This week marks the arrival of thousands of students on study abroad/ teach abroad programs in Sevilla. I’ve seen these students everywhere—they travel in packs, they wear sweatshirts, they have those midwestern faces, that scrubbed clean, bright-eyed look.

So much of this journey reminds me of my own study abroad days, of when I used to call other countries home: hostels and yurts in New Zealand’s lush wilderness, an old Georgian townhouse in Bath, England, even the brief month I spent with Sra Pratelli in Florence, Italy with her half-drunk med-school son and her hair-blind Olde English Sheep Dog, Giorgio.

While I’ve traveled extensively since, those months in my early twenties come back most vividly here—along with a shadow of what that felt like: the wonder of how old everything was, the excitement of not knowing anyone, the promise of something new and unknown, that sensory overload at my first taste of capsicum, real buffalo mozzarella, guinea pig (yes, if you bring it, I will eat). Maybe most importantly, my arms wide open to duende. I know 23 was only 8 years ago, but back then, I wanted to embrace everything; I was ready and searching for that spark of duende. I craved it like good wine, drank it like a long kiss.

Now, married four years and settled peacefully into living more gently, with more silence and less skydiving, I can’t help but want that drop-me-to-my knees duende, that feeling that plucks at your spinal cord and sends a shiver to your feet.

True, I still marvel open-mouthed every time we walk past the Giralda and Cathedral. We’ve only been here four days, and every day brings a new beautiful thing that stops me in my tracks. But everything is tempered, as if there’s a wall of glass, un poco de niebla (call it growing up, call it cynicism, call it over-exposure, call it inevitable) between me and that very raw, very eager girl who just couldn’t get enough of life and love and living.

I was thinking about her when I rounded a corner and found this poem, from the poet Luis Cernuda, born in this very town. Gracias, Sr. Cernuda, for putting this into words for me. My humble translation:

The Old Garden

Go back to the old garden, that door you closed—
through the wall’s arches, between
lemons, magnolias —
there, the water’s song.

Again, hear the silence,
the living trill of leaves,
the air’s warm whisper
where old souls float.

See again the deep clouds
in the distance, the slender tower—
this flower of light over the palms:
all things beautiful, always.

Feel again as you did then,
the prickling, splinter-hint of desire
from your long ago youth
returning. Dream of a god without time.

Who Else Drinks El Sangre de Christo on a Saturday Night?

Sevilla is known for its Catholic devotion and famous celebrations of Semana Santa (Holy Week) which I will be sure to blog about come April. Little did we know this pomp and circumstance isn’t reserved for one week of the year– rather, the Sevillans weave Catholicism into everything, making it a focus as well as a reason for what appears to be essential to Andalucían life– socializing.

Take this weekend, our first here: we stumble across a hip bar called El Garlochi. The theme? Easter. Or maybe just Catholicism. At any rate, it was kind of like if my dear Great Aunt Mary got the task of decorating a bar.  Pretty much the same strategy of how she decorated her house– every spare surface needs another Jesus. The featured cocktail here is called “El Sangre de Christo” (Blood of Christ) and the walls are covered in gaudy Sevillan Catholic imagery, icons, statues, photographs, etc. A little knowingly campy, but definitely not sacrilegious. Loved it.

Then, on Saturday night, the streets of our neighborhood suddenly erupt into song as a parade makes its way through. Unforunately, we still don’t know the reason behind the parade– we did discern the following though: It was most likely in honor of a saint or feast day and was being held by a hermandad, or Brotherhood, of one of the local parishes. From what I can understand so far (and I need to do more research) a hermandad goes WAY back in history beginning as a kind of pistol-carrying peacekeeping force of lay parish men, and is now more like a men’s club, similar to the Knights of Columbus. Except each church has their own. And there are so many churches in this city it’s dizzying.

The parade went something like this: At the front, a kind of awkward, pimply but adorable middleschool aged band, followed by cute children carrying candles as tall as they are (called cirios).  Another band, this one more official and made up of high school/ college-age students, followed by the men’s band.  This wove around our neighborhood announcing a float, which followed shortly behind in a cloud of incense led by priests. This is no float on wheels– rather, about 16 men are underneath it shuffling through the streets blindly, the weight of the float on the backs of their necks. We could see their white shoes under the float as they came past.

flags in the procession

Then there was a separate procession of men carrying giant flags on flagpoles the size of shipmasts. They have to be supported in these harnesses/ belts the men wear around their waists and there were a ton of people “spotting” these guys– much needed, and couple almost lost control of these giant flags in the wind. In this parade was a ten-foot tall effigy of a saint, followed by some women dressed in beautiful skirts and scarves playing castanets and dancing while they marched, and then at the back of all this: the senior citizens of the parish, decked in either capes and pins (men) or full fur coats (the ladies).

The whole family is pretty much in on the action with these things, one of my favorite observations about Andalucían life– the big mix of generations all in one location. Young teenagers meander through the streets for paseo behind groups of old ladies walking and gossiping. In bars, you’ll find a great range of ages, and everyone is always just OUT- families, grandparents, young couples, etc. So much about the schedule here is built around time for family and socialization– which is why this Sunday, even though it’s a dreary rainy day, the Plaza is still packed with people, and all the shops are closed.

Mucha Lluvia

We have been here a little over a week and have started to settle in a bit. The weather has also decided we’ve had enough of our Spanish honeymoon and has returned to being winter, with rain the past three days. It casts the city in a different light, but hasn’t dampened the spirits of the people here one bit. However, I do think it has been a little unseasonably cold here, as yesterday morning while having our coffee at our neighborhood bar (people take their coffee standing at the bar) everyone who came in kept remarking, “Hace frio hoy!”  Of course, back home, our Bostonian buddies are getting whammed by yet another wall of snow and below freezing temps– the Sevillans would be appalled.

Instead of lamenting the rain, however, I am finding a calm in it. It’s arrived at the point in our journey when we need to acclimate and act like we’re staying– not sightseers running around the city all the time, but people who are content to sit inside on a rainy day, make a big pot of soup, drink tea, and watch the game. So this is what we did this Sunday afternoon, in our Andalucian/American mash-up lifestyle. We went to church in the main Cathedral of the town, I made soup with local ham and asparagus, we drank some mint tea, and Corey managed to find the Packer’s/Bear’s game–via a Swedish channel online.

The afformentioned church is the Catedral de Sevilla, or Giralda. The largest gothic cathedral in the world, and the third largest church in the world, the appearance of the cathedral accurately reflects the goals of those who commissioned its construction over 600 hundred years ago: to be so decorated and ornate and over-the-top that people would think the Sevillans were mad. The cathedral was built on top of the location of a Moorish mosque, and the giant bell town, La Giralda, is a former minaret.

The Islamic/ Moorish influence is palbable all over Andalucia and brings a beauty that is unparrelelled. It is also present in Andalucian poetry. Today I have discovered the Moorish poet, Abú Qasim al Manisí, who lived here in Sevilla in the 12th century, when the Giralda was still a minaret (during the Almohad period).

Manisí’s poem, “Lluvia Sobre El Rio,” finds duende in this type of rainy weather.  If you’re reading this and the winter wind is howling around your house, or you haven’t seen the sun in days and rain is pouring from the sky, perhaps these words of a poet dead now almost 1000 years will help you find duende in your mal tiempo.

Lluvia Sobre el Río

La mano de los vientos realiza finos trabajos de
orfebre en el río, ondulado en mil arrugas.

Y siempre que ha terminado de forjar las mallas
de una loriga, la lluvia viene a enlazarlas con sus clavillos.

Abú Qasim al Manisí (S. XII)

Rain On the River

The hand of the wind does fine work–
goldsmith of the river–
creating a thousand undulating wrinkles.

And whenever it has finished forging
the surface into an armor of chains,
the rain comes again to link them with cloves.

Abú Qasim al Manisí (S. XII)

A note on the translation– this poem had already been translated from the original Arabic of the 1100’s to Spanish when I found it. The poet seems to be referring to a particular piece of armor, something we might not recognize if named (unless you are a student of Almohad history, in which case, diga me!). I offer my best English version of what Manisí might have meant so that at least the image of the water like a finely crafted piece of chain-link armor survives the years.