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.