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.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Alhambra, Evening Light

Why write the name of your lover on every orange in Seville, or make promises about spring and the cherry trees when, as the day wants to pass into tomorrow, you might walk unknowingly into bliss up the narrow hill roads of the Albayzin to the Mirador San Nicholás to gaze upon a beauty nothing else can match?

You reach the little view point near Mezquita Mayor de Granada, the new mosque serving Granada’s re-surging Muslim population, and there, before you, the Alhambra in evening light all along La Sabika hill, and in the far-off nearby, the Sierra Nevada, its snows fresh from last night’s storm. The air is cool but not cold, with lovely freshets rising off the green valley and the river Darro. The view point is filled with people, dogs, babies, and traveling hippies selling handmade jewelry. You don’t need any handmade jewelry, but you have a look anyway because it’s all part of the scene. And as the sun drops lower, the light on the palace walls drops too, a brighter yellow gone all ruddy warm. You stand at the edge of it, needing nothing else to feed you, imagining the colorful, silk-draped world the Muslims created in southern Spain long ago, and you decide that it was good.

That was the moment I had been hoping for, the moment to end my suffering after an oh-so-ordinary tour of the Alhambra. What, with 6,000 people passing through each day, each one required to follow a guide, for better or for worse, and that guide speaking whatever language you speak, her eye on you so that you don’t wander off to a quiet corner and enjoy yourself, wander off to feel the place as Irving felt it, alone, in the dark, his body a pile of tender bones upon the cold, hard invulnerable floors. No. You won’t get any such luxury here, and certainly little enjoyment, trapped inside a sea of people, group after group, wave after wave, the click and whir of countless little cameras, the swish-swishing of fat legs meeting in the middle, the plastic bag sound of a million square yards of Gortex, all of it, all of them together a tired mass of writhing eels, and you, yourself, the worst little eel of all.

The Alhambra, to say something of its history, dates from the 9th century, when it was built as a hilltop fortress by the Muslim rulers of the day. Over the next few hundred years, it was expanded into a fortress palace. Then in 1492, Abu Abd Allah, the last Muslim king of Granada, handed over the keys to Ferdinand and Isabella. Various obscenities followed—the razing of the mosque for construction of a Catholic church, destruction of part of the Palacio Nazaries for the Palacio de Carlos V, and the eventual closure of the bath. Later, the fortress was abandoned and forgotten and occupied by beggars and thieves. During Napoleon’s little Narcissism, the great Alhambra was used as a barracks and livestock stable. Washington Irving took up residence here in 1829, and wrote down the stories from the palace’s history in his famed Tales of the Alhambra. That book helped illuminate the obvious need to restore and preserve the palace, which Spain did and so, much later, garnered the honor of UNESCO World Heritage status.

All that really is just history, because the Alhambra is a live thing, a glorious thing, a beauty beyond compare when you gaze into its future from across the river with your friends. The light falls against it, and a little brown bird goes whiffling by. A dog barks at a puppy asleep on its master’s discarded sweater. In the mountains there, the high clouds come down to cover them.

That’s just about as much beauty as you can take. On the way back down the hill, you are careful to avoid speeding cars, wrong turns, and excrement in the road.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Viva Itálica

The first trip I made out of Sevilla after arriving on January 4, 2009 was to Itálica, the first Roman colony in southern Spain.

Established in 206 BC, Rome was still a burgeoning empire. After defeating the famed Hannibal of Carthage, the Romans claimed rule over most of Iberia. Maybe you remember this bit of history, because it was the staging for Russell Crowe’s first appearance in the coliseum of Rome in Gladiator. (These days, it’s OK to admit that you really love that movie, no matter how well-read you are.) The story goes that veterans of this Second Punic War settled in Itálica, and the city rose up around them.

Interesting fact: did you know that Caesar, the original, was one of “the great fornicators [of] antiquity?”

It is but an eight kilometer bus ride from Seville (both spellings seem acceptable) to the ruins of this once great city and its impressive ampitheater, theater, and lovely mosaic floors which characterized the homes of wealthy Romans.

Walking among the ruins, you would believe that the city was carved out of the very Earth, so dense and rough-shod are the worn walls and tunnels. I love stone—“as God intended,” a friend once said—and prefer it to two-by-fours and dry wall. I announced suddenly that I wouldn’t mind to have lived during Roman times.

“I wouldn’t mind to have lived during Roman times,” I said, suddenly.

“Are you kidding,” said Dr. Inglis, the TTU Center site director. “As a historian, I love to look at it, but I don’t want any part of it. How old are you?” he asked.

I told him.

“See, if you had been a slave or a servant, you’d have been dead 15 years. If you had been rich, maybe 10 years ago, five if you’re lucky.”

Five or ten, what would it matter once you were dead? Anyhow, “Gee,” I said. “I get your point.”

We angled across the ampitheater floor and had a look into its underbelly, the passageways where gladiators and various wild beasts awaited pain and slaughter to delight the crowd. Then into one of the gateways and under the ancient grandstands. Here we admired the replica of the iron plate posted on the wall—the credo of the gladiator. Spock reminds us to “Live long and prosper,” but the message here is rather the opposite: your life is brief, and generally meaningless, so you might as well die valiantly to make the crowd happy.

Despite the dark reality of a short life, rich or poor, have you ever considered that the Roman’s got it right? In their day, the well-educated were the elite, and were likely wealthy. Professional athletes were slaves, and died for sport in the coliseum. (Except Russell Crowe, of course, bless his heart.)

Two thousand years later, professional athletes enjoy god-like status, and make millions, while over-educated teachers scratch a living out of shadows and dust. In fact, a sure route to poverty is to go to graduate school, evidenced by the extreme glut of out-of-work PhDs. Alas.

Does Tiger Woods deserve millions? Or your daughter’s third grade teacher? You decide.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Up in Ronda

Maria, the seven year-old daughter of my traveling companions—Carmen Pereira of Vigo, Spain and John Beusterien of Detroit—makes a list over lunch of all the careers she plans to try before making her choice. Astronaut. Poet. Pet sitter. Ballerina. Food critic. She loves food, especially meat. But never, she announces, will she be a translator. This, despite the fact that she’s already fluent in Spanish and English, as are her parents, and she plans to pick up a few more languages along the way.

“I want to learn Portuguese next,” Maria says. “Then French, German, Chinese, Japanese . . .”

“How about this creamy vegetable soup?” I ask. “How would you rate it, on a scale from one to ten?”

“Four,” she says, without hesitation. “Daddy. I’ll swap you for your salad,” she says.

The next course arrives, the lomo (pork) in heavy gravy with a spread of greasy French fries.

“And this,” I ask. “On a scale from one to ten?”

“Mmm,” Maria says. “Seven.”

We’re in the mountains south of Seville, up from the broad, flat valley of the Quadalquivir. Ronda is a village of 35,000 people bisected by the dramatic El Tajo gorge. On the south side is the old Muslim city, on the north the modern Christian town with its famous bullring, the oldest dedicated bullfight arena in Spain. Hemingway loved this little town, and you’ll find a walkway dedicated to him, as did Orson Wells and Alexander Dumas. Ronda is home to three generations of Romeros, who collectively gave shape to modern bullfighting. Pedro, the youngest and most famous, was inspiration for a bullfighter by the same name in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was also inspired by the Puente Nuevo, the new bridge (1793) spanning the gorge, and turned it into Robert Jordan’s mission in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But you can find this information in any reasonable guidebook, enough texture at least to decide on a visit or no.

We catch a taxi out to the Hotel el Horcajo, a country Inn in the bottom of a little valley. We stow our bags, and set out for a refreshing walk in the hills.

Making our way up the old road, we arrive at a gate near the pig barn. John and Carmen, both overly-curious professor types, dash inside as 100 little black piggies come running out. These are the famous black pigs that eat only acorns from the cork forests all over Andalucía, and are the source of the delicious jamón Ibérico (not to be confused with jamón serrano), made by slowly salt curing the back leg. In almost every bar in every town in the region you find a sea of pig legs hanging from the ceiling.

“I don’t care much for pigs,” I say, as we climb the hill behind the barn. The valley is a vibrant green from all the recent rain, and the ground is wet and soft.

“I thought you were a naturalist?” says Carmen.

“Just because it’s an animal doesn’t mean I have to like it,” I say. “Besides, pigs have tiny brains and they’re dirty. What’s to like about a pig?”

“What? No! Pigs are smarter than dogs,” protests Professor Beusterien.

“And pigs are really clean. They love the water,” says Professor Pereira. “They’re dirty only when confined by human beings.”

We come across yet another black devil rooting up the ground with its nose, and snorting hideously.

“Look! How cute,” Carmen says. “A pig in its natural environment.”

But Maria and I agree—pigs might taste good, but they’re icky and scary. I can only understand Carmen and John’s pig-defense by chalking it up to a hyper-developed sense of fair play, often a primary psychological feature during parenthood.

“But I think horses are beautiful,” says Maria.

Finally someone gets it right.

At dinner, we decide only to order a few plates and share them around, so monstrous was our 3:00 pm lunch. Plates are flying about the table like whirligigs from a copse of maple trees. Maria devours everything that once went on four legs, and then tucks into a dessert of quince and cheese.

“How is that?” I ask, noticing how she is hording the plate from the rest of us. “On a scale from one to ten.”

“It’s wonderful!” she exclaims. “Ten!”

Later, she will give the same mark to a cup of hot chocolate after a long day in Ronda walking in the rain. But don’t think of that hot cocoa you know in the States made with a synthetic powdery mix. This is a cup of chocolate, melted and heated for drinking. Again, Maria knows best.

But it’s not her fault she’s smart and speaks two languages. She’s got worldly parents, and they’ve made a point of taking her traveling. Some people just have a head start on the world.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


After a productive morning of work, and then a lovely half-day in the city of Seville, which included an art installation at the Hospital de los Venerables titled “Recovering Classical Antiquity in Andalusia,” I turned for my temporary home on calle Vidrio. The show had given me access to one of the, if not THE most exquisite example of Roman statuary, a sleek, creamy white torso of a woman, altogether headless and mostly armless, carved a really long time ago. There were also some paintings of superior quality by Spanish painters of superior renown: Murillo, Zurbarán, and Velázquez. The Zurbarán I liked best. His “Inmaculada,” dated 1635, depicting the virgin, the Immaculate One, floating in a moony sky upon a platform of cherubic heads. I then lunched with friends in the Plaza de Alfalfa, and after took my newly habitual coffee at the Café de Indios.

All these lovely names sound exceptionally romantic to me, as I hope they do to you too.

Entering my flat, I looked forward to a few more hours of work, mostly reading and note-taking in preparation for the next day’s classes. The workers re-conditioning the building I’m in, their incessant drilling and pounding and yelling and the honking of their truck horns usually drives me batty, but it was beyond their hours, and I found it unusually quiet. No sooner had I settled in to complete my tasks, the sounds of amorous adventure in the room next door made any sort of intellectual inquiry quite impossible. Fortunately, they were out of shape, and probably heavy smokers, so I was back to work within 15 minutes.

This, I thought, is city living.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Looking at Columbus’s Bones in the Cathedral of Seville

There he is, exalted, carried upon the shoulders of the righteous, a hero of the once great Spanish Empire, forever honored in the great Cathedral of Seville. He opened the door to the New World, to rich lands and clean water, to silver and gold, to the founding of my nation, the United States of America. In that little box is a pile of bones and dust, nothing more, and five centuries ago when those bones and that dust were up walking around, it was, he was (who can deny it) the gateway to the greatest butchery in the history of the world.

This is not about Spain, or about Christianity, or about Columbus, the man. This is about humanity, all of us, and the darker side of what we do.

The “discovery” of the New World meant riches for Spain (and England, Portugal, France, etc.), but it also meant the destruction of a thousand cultures and a thousand languages, the murder of millions of people over hundreds of years. The New World was not empty, but inhabited by people whose ancestors had come upon the Americas 15,000 years earlier.

Is this not the most astonishing hypocrisy?

Columbus’s “discovery” meant murder (thou shalt not kill); it meant pillaging (thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not covet); it meant slavery (love your neighbor as yourself).That Columbus’s bones are sanctified here in the Cathedral of Seville, one of the largest and most beautiful tributes to the passion of Christ, whose message was a single and simple truth: to love. Is this not an outrage? Does this not make you weep?

But I’m not saying anything new.

The cathedral is sinking. Apparently, so massive and heavy is the Cathedral of Seville that within 100 years or so the roof will probably collapse. How do you save a cathedral from itself? You take the weight off, of course, you bore out the center of these massive columns and fit them each with a steel sleeve. Then you wait 100 years to see what happens.

If you happen to be at the cathedral on the right day, you might have a look at the incorruptible body of Saint Ferdinand III. This Castilian king won Cordoba (1236) and then Seville (1248) from the Moors. As a saint, his body will not decay, so there he is, almost like new, in his silver sarcophagus, opened three times a year for public viewing.

And while you’re here, don’t miss your opportunity to ascend the Giralda, the 90-meter tower at the east side of the cathedral. Built by the Moors in the 12th century, it’s a remnant of the mosque that once stood here. The great stones at its base were carved by the Romans (but used by the Moors), then comes the Moorish brick-work, and finally the Christian bell tower at the top, added when the mosque was razed and the cathedral built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Culture on top of culture. Religion on top of religion. It’s an easy climb, and an amazing view from the top.

Look! There is the city of Seville, built on the destruction of the New World.

Look! There is the roof of the cathedral that might soon collapse.

Look! There is the River Quadalquivir. And somewhere far to the east, the Sierra Nevada.

Whenever I’m feeling angry and inconsolable about the way we built this world, it’s good to remember that it’s not people or nations that are incorruptible, but mountains and rivers.

At the end of our long day, as if smiled upon by providence, my friend said, “Let’s have a walk down to the river. I think it’s always good to look at water.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Almost the Year of the Snow

My first Friday in Seville was cold, the temperature plunging to -1 C (about 30 F), and the forecast offered a chance of precipitation. There was a happy buzz in the city about the possibility of snow, mixed with fear and a renewed belief in the end of the world. Such feelings of doomsday come when something that happens rarely in a place, happens. And snow has not been happening in Seville for a very long time.

A thousand years ago, when the Moors ruled southern Spain, a ruthless and twisted Sevillan ruler name Motadid (he used human skulls for flower pots, and liked to keep the heads of his defeated enemies in leather cases so he could admire them from time to time) had a son with a gentler aesthetic. When one of his wives yearned to see snow, he planted almond trees, thousands of them clustered on a hill. When the blossoms fell, she was treated to a storm of white petals.

Last century, it snowed one time in Seville, February 3, 1954. Dubbed “the year of the snow,” there was something auspicious (or ominous) about being born in that year, getting married, or anything at all happening to you that you could remember.

“The Year of the Snow,” your neighbor might say. “Yes, of course. That was when Pilar saw the Virgin Mary in her gazpacho and Pedro developed boils on his ass.”

Or, “The Year of the Snow! I remember. The tree outside our house split in two and all the calves were born with two heads.”

As it turned out, we passed the day in relative comfort under mostly blue skies. It was just another day in the flamenco capital of the world, until I considered that on my journey to Seville, I had been miraculously upgraded to Club Class on my British Airways flight from Houston to London.

“Is that good?” I had asked the smiling clerk.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “You get your own bed.”

Getting my own bed also meant getting wonderful service, pretty good food and free beer, a TV screen at least twice as big as those in coach (10.4 inches to be exact), and nearly unlimited privacy. For the first hour I drank orange juice in my little pod, and peered out any one of my three windows, letting the warm fuzzy feeling of good fortune course through me. Maybe this is what it feels like to be born into wealth, I thought, or to discover a talent you don’t deserve.

For the next three hours I was mostly engaged with the evening meal. Its various courses and options, the willing smiles of the cabin attendant, the pleasant way nothing spilled when the seatbelt light came on. The entrées listed on the menu had four or five word names, like “Hamachi Marinated in Cucumber Vinegar,” and “Seared Millbrook Venison Saddle.” By the time I finished my post-supper coffee, we were a third of the way there.

Next, obviously, I’d watch a movie, good for another two hours. Hellboy II perhaps? Already saw it. Any of the various feel good flicks? Not in the mood. The new animated Star Wars? Perfect. When George Lucas made those three new Star Wars movies, I had thought they were so much about computer animation that they needed to be computer animation. If Lucas allowed himself this indulgence, maybe then he could tell a good story. But no, alas, the story was canned and I was bored as hell. So I folded out my bed, hit the automated recline button, and watched the computer animated map with our little white airplane somewhere over the mid-Atlantic.

I woke hours later to a smiling face. “Good morning sir. Breakfast for you?”

After breakfast, I used the tiny toothbrush and toothpaste in my official British Airways toilet kit, and felt refreshed and happy. We were 20 minutes from Heathrow, the captain said, and then he wished me “a pleasant onward journey.”

But we were about to land, and I would be reduced to an ordinary person again, just one of six billion other people scurrying about on the Earth’s surface looking for food and sex. It was the first time in my years of flying that I didn’t want it to end.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reading Hemingway in Spain

Every respectable traveler and travel writer will take his turn at bad-mouthing tourists, especially tourists standing near fabulous cathedrals, palaces, or monuments in European cities with a Starbucks latte in one hand, a Lonely Planet guide in the other, and The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway in another. What? But is it a sin to read Hemingway on the road, as I am doing now with my class, ENGL 3325—Hemingway in Spain? (I also read On the Road on the road, picking up a copy in Stockholm on my first European tour in 1993, then passing it on to a close friend, after signing my name with a date on the title page, who I hoped would, in turn, pass it on to someone he met in Cairo or Damascus, and eventually, one day in the distant future, the book would return to me. So far, it has not.) So is it a sin?

In my class we’re reading Hemingway’s Spanish doings: The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls to be sure, along with Hemingway’s newspaper stories about Spain, especially the Spanish Civil War, and yes, Death in the Afternoon. In April, the whole cadre from Texas, myself included, will attend a bullfight (stay tuned). And what’s wrong with that? Would it be equally a sin to read Lorca in Spain, or read Kazantzakis in Greece, Hearn in Japan, McCarthy in Texas, Theroux anywhere? Well then, I’ve committed them all.

It seems to me one can learn a great deal about Spain from Hemingway—not the Spaniard’s idea of Spain, but the foreigner’s point of view, an American point of view, which I am, and my students are. Hemingway isn’t the only or the correct way of seeing; it’s just one way of seeing. Plus, we can pick-up useful language employable in many social situations.

Scenario: handsome Texan boy meets gorgeous Spanish girl. He says: "I love thee, little rabbit." She says: "Oh. Is that Shakespeare?" thinking it out of context. He says: "No, little rabbit, Hemingway."

Scenario: gorgeous Texan girl meets handsome Spanish guy. He says: "I think maybe you love me." She says: "Isn’t it pretty to think so."

Scenario: literature professor sees student from Hemingway class working on a paper at the Texas Tech Center in Seville. He says: "Buenas Dias. What are you working on?" She responds: "I am trying to write one true sentence."

So go ahead and read Hemingway in Spain, and worry not about the judgments of offended onlookers, who are obviously superior to you. You can´t do anything about that. It’s not the Hemingway that offends anyway, but that word, "tourist." Travelers fear it more than thieves, more than malaria, more than loneliness. Truth is, a "traveler" is just a tourist who’s been around the block, and getting around the block is usually a function of age, not intelligence, beauty, or athleticism. And if I were you, I wouldn’t be in any hurry to get there.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Living on Calle Vidrio

I live on Calle Vidrio near Puerta de Carmona in the old city, the medieval city of Seville, this once capital of Muslim Spain. The street in front of my first-floor apartment is hardly wide enough to pass a car, paved in cobble stones and mortared with the grime of the ages. Apartments, churches, shops and palaces, colorful and smooth-walled, rise on either side when I walk down it as on a day hike through a slot canyon in southern Utah.

But not only is Calle Vidrio of this fashion. The medieval part of the city is a vast maze of such ancient streets south to the Alcazar Gardens, then north to the Andalucia Parlament, and west to the bull ring and the Plaza de Armas on the River Guadalquivir. On an easy morning walk through these winding streets, you might scout your route easily on the map, but then on the ground, out in the streets, you find you are utterly lost, the cars passing within inches of your body pressed close on an impossibly narrow sidewalk, great greenery hanging down from the window gardens above you, cigarette smoke puffed at every corner bar, and little more than a slip of blue sky above leading your sense. The map leads nowhere, so you wander, in search of the astonishing cathedral of Seville. You wander and wander until somewhere between this and that you catch sight of the towering Giralda, the great bell tower with Roman stones at its foundation, Moorish brickwork telescoping into the icons of the Catholic Church. How you arrived here, you do not know, but here you are none the less. And seated now for your afternoon coffee, the plaza resplendent before you, an edge of January air sharpened against your nose, you realize that the best remedy to reform a control freak is a walk in old Seville.

I am here in Seville this spring semester, 2009, to teach in the study abroad program at Texas Tech University. Each semester some 70 students travel from Lubbock, Texas to southern Spain to study Spanish language and history, and in my classes, travel writing and Hemingway. In Lubbock, I teach in the Natural History and Humanities degree program in the Honors College at Texas Tech, and am most grateful to my dean and colleagues for supporting my semester away.

This is not my first journey abroad, nor my first time in Spain, and yet an experience like this one—four months a resident guest in a foreign land—is enough to draw me from the myopic world-view we Americans sometimes put on. It reminds me, once again, that our way, that my way, is only one way of many, and the knowing of this is a ritual that must be repeated, like communion or like the coming of spring or like forgiveness. To re-learn this truth, to have it with me, I must step outside the door, again, and again, and take a turn through the streets of old Seville.