Sunday, April 26, 2009

Practice Looking Up

Things are winding down here in Sevilla. Classes have ended at the TTU Center. Many of the people in the program have already gone a journeying, or gone home. I’ve made plans for both as well: three nights in Venice, then back to Sevilla, a train to Madrid, and finally my flight to Texas. Sad thing is that my mind and heart have already returned to the American west. I left Spain days ago.

Walking through the Jardin de Murillo the other day, this thought went over in my mind: how do I refocus on the here and now? How do I keep from longing too much for where I’m headed and miss where I am?

I thought: practice looking up!

When I was a wee lad, my mother thought there was something desperately wrong with me. Apparently I sometimes walked into walls. I’d be going about the house and suddenly a wall would appear in my path before I could get out of its way. Wham! I would redirect my course (water around rock), and go on, a little bruise marking the point of impact. Is he an idiot, my mother wondered? Partially blind? Deep in thought? Is he mad?

I think, for whatever reason, I tend to walk along looking at the ground. I find a lot of arrow points this way and other cool stuff too, but sometimes I get lost. Hmm, I don't remember passing this building, or was this river here yesterday? You get my point. It takes some effort to remind myself to look up. When I do, I find new cool stuff. Birds overhead. People approaching me (Hello!). A whole world, for god’s sake, unfolding in front of me.

So in the Jardin de Murillo I thought: practice looking up! I looked up into the towering gardens, and there, a bat house made from the bark of a cork tree. That doesn’t sound like something to jump up and down about, but it reminded me that just when I think I’ve seen everything, something surprising is about to happen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Chicken with Salsa

Here’s a little ditty, hardly worth your time.

I don't mind fried chicken, but hot wings are mostly bones—and I don't eat fried bones. In some places, in some restaurants, wings are trotted out like some special food. They’re really the worst part of the chicken. The sheep herders I traveled with in Idaho always threw them to the dogs. A good rotisserie chicken, however—that’s something else.

There's a chicken rotisserie on the corner near my flat here in Sevilla. I pass by it every day on my way to school. Whole chickens roasting on a spit cover two walls, slowly turning. It always smells great, and a line of people extends outside the door. So one day, I stopped to get one. At about ten bucks a chicken, it’s fairly cheap and will last me a couple days.

I order one. The woman behind the counter nods, and dismantles a freshly roasted tasty chicken into pieces just for me. The nice thing about a grill like this is that all the nasty fat drops off the chicken while it is roasting—which is one of the points of grilling, no?

Then she asks, "salsa?"

I don’t really know what she means, but if there’s a little extra sauce of some kind for dipping, I might as well try it. I nod my head, "yes."

So she ladles onto my chicken three cups of the pale gray grease that’s been collecting at the bottom of the rotisserie all day, probably all week.

I've been back one other time, but I knew what I was getting into. "Pero no salsa, por favor!" I said.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Brothers Ivanics

Quickly now, let me tell you about my new friends Ferenc and Istvan Ivanics.

You see, I took a weekend away from the safety of my friends to visit the port town of Malaga. The city is not much to look at, and all I had to do that day was look at it. The famed Picasso museum had closed most of its best galleries to some kind of renovation. (What could they be renovating? The 16th century building has already been renovated to the tune of 66 million euros.) I paid the fee and saw the work of Max Ernst, a few Picasso drawings, and one Picasso painting the museum assured me was “the most important one.” I can’t even remember it. After that, I wandered the back streets and city center alone, the feral cats scattering into the derelict and crumbling buildings. I wasn’t having a very good time. I thought I’d bug out on the next train, and return to my little flat in Sevilla.

I didn’t. I don’t know why.

It was Carnival, and people were everywhere dressed in costumes of varying interest. There were a few amateurish street performers collecting coins from the tourists, and two guys with backpacks seated against a corrugated steel wall. They had a sign that boasted they were two years and 5,200 miles into a six-year and 25,000-mile walk around the world. What? I passed by thinking them just another street performance. I passed again. I passed once more, and this time I stopped.

“So, you guys are walking around the world?”

“Yah. Yah. We are walking,” Ferenc said, without ceremony.

It was true. They left their home in Hungary two years ago, walked across Europe, south through Spain, crossed into Morocco, and then walked down the coast to Dakar, passing through the Sahara. From there, they tried to ship passage on a boat to Miami, to continue their route across the USA. No luck. So they hitched rides back to Spain to try and earn enough money to catch a flight from Madrid.

I considered that if I had gone home when I thought I might, I would not have met these guys. Many times just when I think I'm all washed up, the most beautiful thing happens.

I invited them up to Sevilla to talk to my classes. They agreed, and are here now. In fact, their laundry is drying in my open window.

No, no. Of course I don’t mean to ask you for money, but of course the brothers Ivanics need just that to continue their journey. They have a blog, which may interest you: world walk--peace tour.

The other day I asked them what keeps them going? “Why don’t you quit and just go home?”

“Ah. We are going home,” Ferenc said. “Just we are choosing the long way.”

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Pig's Elbow

I was on the lam in Madrid and ducked into a bar for lunch. The place was a sea of cured ham legs hanging from the walls and ceiling.

I used to complain that every American city had the same inventory: Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond. It hardly mattered where you lived because every town was the same. I romanticized European cities, where diverse people ate diverse foods prepared in traditional ways. But the thing about an illusion is that it’s an illusion. In Spain, instead of the same companies selling the same thing, you have different companies selling the same thing: every bar and restaurant in the land has a selection of little piggy legs dangling overhead. It’s like sitting down to the table beneath a pork burlesque show. Wow, look at the knees on that one!

This was typical Spanish fare. The "menu del dia" would give me three courses, and this one included a bottle of wine! And not a bad price either.

I made a pass through the list of options. I don’t speak Spanish, but after a year-long course as an undergrad in ‘89, a tour through Europe in ‘93, two summers with Peruvian sheep herders in Idaho (’05 and ’06), and now two plus months in Spain, I can get along just fine.

The first course was easy. The elderly couple seated nearby had chosen the shrimp in a garlic butter sauce, and it looked very fine. I chose that. Then for the second course.

Hmm, I thought, running through the options. I don’t know what this one is. Or that one. The "chuletillas de lechal." Little chops of some sort, with fries. Probably lamb, or maybe pork. A safe choice. But I bet everything was good.

Might as well just pick one, I thought, trying for spontaneity. Perhaps the "codillo estilo Aleman?" Must be German. I’ll have that.

As it turned out, it was German. At least that one word I got right. “Codillo,” I learned later, means “elbow,” so this was a dish of pig’s elbow, German style, with side dishes of boiled potatoes and brussel sprouts. When it arrived, the steaming elbow stood at least eight inches off the surface of the plate, all covered over with a thick layer of hearty boiled fat, which separated and fell away when I touched it with my knife.

Almost everyone can locate a moment when an expectation was not satisfied by reality. If the difference between expectation and reality is extreme, several things happen: a sour emptiness floods into the stomach making you feel queasy and unsociable; time is suspended, and what is likely seconds goes on for days; and the happiness you sat down with drains from your face only to be replaced by a violent surge of heat and blood swirling with regret. This is how I felt when the codillo estilo Aleman appeared in front of me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Eulogy for my Grandmother

It is a spring Sunday in southern Spain, where I have been teaching and living these past months, and we who are still alive wake to the sun breaking for us. It comes into the window of my flat, the shutters now thrown back, and I sit under it, my hair wet from the bath, a coffee, hot in my hands. The sun lights this whole splendid world for us, and for everything else too. Everything that is or ever was on earth was made by the sun. Trees and flowers were made by the sun, whales and elephants and giraffes, yogurt and beer and biscuits were all made by the sun. I was made by the sun. And you too are made by the sun.

My grandmother, Maxine Ophelia Buchholz Caswell, died in Idaho, on Friday, in the early morning hours. She is the mother of my father, and of two of my uncles, and she lived to see nearly 31,000 sunrises. That seems like a big number, and enough for anyone, but putting the number down at all connects me with my own end, and maybe connects you with yours. Our little lives are brief next to the great age of the sun, and what my grandmother has accomplished in her passage from this world to the next is to show all of us the way.

I was not with her when she died, but the story I am hearing from you who were there is that she refused to accept that her body’s life was soon to end. She held on to this world with a fierceness I did not know was in her. For years I thought of her as someone who lived mostly at the edges of the world, not in it, and that when her time came to die, she would willingly let go. She spoke often of not wanting to be a burden to anyone, and stated so in a sealed letter she included with her will. But what I mistook for detachment, I realize now was a quiet and uncontestable independence. She wanted to do it herself, or not at all. I must smile at this, for it is in me too, and in my father and my sisters.

I believe that the universe is not tuned for extinction, but for transformation—transformation that is in-line with the first law of thermodynamics: energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it must change form. Birth and death are bound together at their ends; they are as much the same thing as they are opposites.

We cannot know if we will see her again, but we do know that where she has gone, we will all one day follow. After this ceremony today, it is our great task to live on without her, to work hard, to love well, to open ourselves to the sun that is rising for us through the window.

Goodbye, my grandmother. Godspeed you on your way.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Arab Bath

But for Stockholm and Copenhagen; Sapporo, Japan and Portland, Oregon, all cities are unnecessarily filthy, smell of refuse and decay, and tend not to deliver what they promise. People like them, I guess, for the shopping, the fresh pastries, and the proximity to indoor plumbing. Seville is such a city too, but it also has its finer points: its beauty is drawn forward from the distant past—Roman, Visigoth, Moorish and Christian. It is a wilderness of masonry and stone settled on a river port, punctuated by bright oranges hung in the trees like Christmas bulbs. People are everywhere in the streets, a lively, gay parade of dark lovely hair and bright voices. But better than any of this—it has an Arab bath.

At calle Aire 15, just beyond Iglesia Santa Cruz, you enter Aire de Sevilla through an unassuming portal in the narrows where the music, its mellifluous flutes and strings, calls you in along with the sensuous warmth of burning incense. You cannot pass that door without turning in, which is what befell me just the other day, strolling through town, minding my own business, gazing up at this and over at that. Of course, I had also made an appointment, which is essential—the number of bathers is limited to prevent over-crowding and preserve the sanctity of your experience.

So in I went, and took a seat to wait my turn, just as Christ waited at the gate for Mary Magdalene (or don’t you read Kazantzakis?). The bell struck 4:00 pm, and I dressed down to my swim trunks and entered the bath.

You cannot believe such bliss lies just beyond those doors. The soft candle light releases your heart from the weary week as you enter first, the sauna. You can see nothing through the steam, walking blindly in until the benches introduce themselves at your knees. You sit. You breathe that gentle good earthy air. That music you hear is the main theme from House of Flying Daggers—I guess the Moors love that movie too. You settle in. The steam washes you from the inside out, and you sweat and sweat and breathe deeply again. Water, condensed on the ceiling, splashes onto your head and thighs. When the futbol players arrive and shatter the silence, you head for the bathing pools.

When the Moors ruled most of Iberia (711-1492, roughly), the bath was not just for personal hygiene. It was central to social life, and functioned too as an informal meeting place where men conducted state business. It so complemented the affairs of state, that in Granada’s Alhambra, the bath is located close to the entrance to the Hall of Ambassadors, the first door on the eastern wall of the Courtyard of the Myrtles. As friendly as it was, a bath warden stood by to quell any escalating disagreements.

From the sauna, you find your way from pool to pool up and down a system of wooden stairs—the soft quiet pool, the jet pool with the ceiling fretted with stars, then through the resting room to the big one, which conceals a much hotter pool in the back, next to the cold bath. This is what you’ve been searching for—you go hot then cold, hot then cold, hot then cold, and return again to the sauna. Now the sauna is empty. And so are you. After all, you’ve been cooking in steam for an hour and a half. A couple arrives and seeks out the darkest corner, vanishing into the mist. You leave them for a cup of cold tea in the resting room.

You’ve booked a 45 minute massage, instead of the usual 15. Might as well go all the way. Don’t worry—you’re just getting a rub down. Lance Armstrong gets one every day. The masseuse leads you up two flights of stairs to a private room—what the bath didn’t take out of you, she does. You leave feeling like a million bucks, and you’re down only about 60 euros. The problem is you’ll probably come back.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What Comes In Through the Window

Birdsong, when the weather is good, and the neighbors on the 3rd floor throw open their shutters and hang the caged canary in the sunshine in Seville. Hang two cages, each with a canary, in the sunshine, that sing and sing to be freed. A woman singing, roughly, hanging her laundry to dry on a rack near the window, wearing a white dress with black polka-dots, she sings and catches my eye through the window as I pass. A dog, a little wiener-shaped wire-haired dog, that might as well be a rat, barking, its little bark enough to urge me to violence, even I, who love dogs. Then the dog-mother walks it, the cling! clang! of the iron gate, where it squats in the street, and then returns with her, quiet now, for a time. A short time as people are yelling, in Spanish of course, shouting at each other, a lover’s quarrel, as if this is what the voice was made for. Another voice was made to sing, the man upstairs, bass or bass baritone, he sings his warm-up scales, resonant and warming, and I am transported to that opera house in Prague where I saw Figaro, my first. A saxophone, when I pass under it in the evening hours, through the open window as its piper practices and the sounds rolls down into the narrow, ancient streets and smile upon me. And I don’t even care for jazz. Love, the hard-edged sounds of it roughened by the drum beat pulse of it from the flat next door. The workers overhauling the building, “Oi! Oi! Oi!” and the psst-whir of the construction elevator. The gentle breeze, topping the palm trees, the one that comes up in the courtyard there. The smell of a kitchen, garlic and roasting something in an oven when I pass, the bread too from the little bakeries and coffee when I sit near my own window which comes forward from the back of my flat. The fuggy city smell with carbon and carbon monoxide, sewer stink and lovely roast lamb from the kebab shop. Oranges, fallen from the city trees and pounded into the cobble stones by cars and bicycles and feet. The sun, warming my face. Cigarette smoke from inside and outside the building manager’s lungs. Darkness. The cold.