The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Judy’s Sevilla: A Quixotic Affair
Madness? Who knows where madness lies?
Too much sanity may be madness
And the maddest of all: To see life as it is,
And not as it ought to be
I was in kindergarten when the spell began to take its effect. The initial potion was a song: “Once you have been in Andalucia and gone away, your heart will live in Andalucia both night and day. Such is the story they tell and I know so well that its magic spell can impart…” At age five, the word “Andalucia” was nothing more or less than a lovely sound conjuring up images of my own particular “Neverland”. The brew was enhanced by my witnessing a flamenco performance by Jose Greco in Southern California. I was captive. When the rest of my young friends were listening to Elvis and the Beatles, I was collecting recordings of flamenco “cante” and playing them at full volume to the consternation of family and neighbors. It was the beginning of my Quixotic Adventures of the Spirit which continue to envelop me as I live my illusion in Sevilla, Spain.
I had jumped through all the hoops of a more traditional, “earth-bound” trajectory before moving to Sevilla several decades ago: degrees in Spanish Language & Literature from Stanford University, a home in Northern California, a tenured teaching position. . . . I left it all to “come home to Sevilla” where I am currently a writer, translator and professor of Spanish Culture & Society and Spanish Art History. My classroom is Sevilla. The city is my passion and my constant inspiration. My joy is to share my love with students and visitors and my abiding aspiration is that I might be contagious. Sevilla is not a jealous lover — she embraces all who find themselves caught in the labyrinths of her ancient perfumed cobblestone streets.
The Spanish call “love-at-first-sight” a flechazo (a blow with Cupid’s arrow). That arrow found its mark the first time I visited Sevilla during Christmas break from my graduate studies at the University of Madrid. I fell in love with Sevilla’s rhythms: the lifestyle of her people, the cadence of their speech, the flamenco music of her perpetual fiestas, the delicious bacchanalian ritual of tapas and copitas, the murmur of her river, the incandescent blue of her sky. I was touched by her spirit, her duende and by her culture, whose roots dig deep into her European, African and Middle Eastern profile. I felt as though I had “come home”. To stretch the imagination a bit (as the sevillanos love to do), there is a hereditary, albeit remote, connection between my Rumanian grandparents, Sevilla and myself. The Roman Emperor Trajan, born in the city of Itálica, a few kilometers from Sevilla, incorporated what is now Rumania into the Roman Empire — hence my Latin roots!
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This Quixotic Spirit is a living presence in Sevilla. In fact, Cervantes engendered his protagonist while imprisoned in a Seville jail “where all discommodities have taken possession and all doleful noises made their habitation….”
“Sevilla, La Maravilla”, is without question one of the world’s greatest “Living Museums.” The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and personality of the people are a compendium of cultures that span more than three millennia and four continents – Europe, Africa, the Middle East and America. An Arab poet, enamored with this city where almost anything was deemed possible, exclaimed: “Sevilla, you are no city, but a world! The scattered marvels of other capitals have come together in you. Oh part of Spain, so much greater than the whole!”
Sevilla is one of the best places in the world to experience this confluence of cultures. The ancient Phoenicians, (from what is now Syria and Lebanon), the Greeks, Carthaginians (from Africa), Romans, Jews, Visigoths (from Northern and Eastern Europe), Muslims (Berber tribes from North Africa and Arabs from the Middle East), the Hapsburg Dynasty (from Austria and Flanders), and the Bourbon Dynasty (from France) have all left a profound mark upon Spanish culture and society. Here in Sevilla, these imprints are palpable in every facet of the city’s life — in its food, music, customs, celebrations, traditions, architecture and especially in the character of the people.
The word “convivencia” comes from the Spanish: con (with) and vivir (to live), thus… “to live together.” For the last 3,000 years, groups of people from all the places cited above have been particularly attracted to Andalucia’s shores. Many who came originally enticed by climate, coastline, natural resources and trade, stayed and established roots that dug deep into the Andalucian subsoil. Some of them made Spain their home for many centuries: the Romans (600 years), the Arabs (800 years), and the Jews (1200 years). Culturally speaking, every Andalucian is an heir to the Romans (both pagan and Christian), the Muslims and the Jews.
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Late last night, while strolling home through the old city center of Sevilla, a familiar scent caused me to stop and catch my breath, as it always has during the more than twenty years that I have resided in this magical city. I looked up into the branches of an orange tree illuminated by one of Sevilla’s wrought iron street lanterns and saw a leafy green canopy speckled with hundreds of pungent tiny white flowers, in full winter-night bloom. The perfume of the azahar, the orange blossom, both announces and then cloaks this city in its spring festival finery. The intoxicating aroma of these perpetual little lords of Sevilla’s plazas, streets and gardens is the harbinger of Sevilla’s millenary spring celebrations — Holy Week (Semana Santa), the April Fair (La Feria de Abril) and its flamenco and bulls, the Fiesta of Corpus Christi and the Pilgrimage to El Rocío.
When the orange blossom releases its perfume in every corner of the city, the people of Sevilla will exclaim: “Ya huele a Semana Santa” – “It now smells like Semana Santa!” However the translation doesn’t begin to address what emotions lie beneath the words. The aroma awakens memories, stirs the blood, renews hope and for precious moments makes life exhilarating. It heralds people coming together in a spirit of community, co-operation, joy and love that no laws could ever decree, but that are part of the DNA of the inhabitants of this city. Beware – the spirit is contagious! It infects people of all ages and across all cultural bounds. Japanese bullfighters and flamenco dancers have become part of the richly woven fabric of eternal Sevilla. Jews as well as non-believers have become captivated participants in the Holy Week celebrations. And grandmothers in flamenco dresses dance the “Sevillanas” with great grace and flair in the April Fair.
Sevilla is, however, immeasurably more than a city caught in the amber of its ancient traditions. This modern and comfortable metropolis of the 21st Century confronts its future while temporarily side-stepping the obstacles of the construction of a new underground rapid transit system. The 1992 World Expo brought updated infrastructure to Sevilla, a new airport and train station, a fast train, the AVE that speeds people comfortably from Madrid to Sevilla in less than 2½ hours. Sevilla is home to some of the finest, most charming and unusual hotels and restaurants in Europe. It continues to serve, as it has for centuries, as a magnet for visitors, students, artists, writers, performers and residents from all parts of the Orient and the Occident. Life expectancy is longer here – the low fat diet, fruits, vegetables, wine, year-round celebrations and the siesta all work their magic.
I have adopted Sevilla as my home because I think it is the only place in the world where one can feel so strongly the pulse of the “Collective Unconscious.” This gazpacho of cultures — the ancient Iberians, Phoenicians, Tarsish, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Arabs, Jews, the parade of kings and queens, explorers, writers, artists and musicians have left a deep imprint on the life of this city. Aside from the visible artistic and architectural reminders of their presence, daily rituals allow the Sevillanos and visitors to continue to commune with these ancestors in a very visceral way. The flamenco cry recalls the Oriental tonal scale of the Muslims and the Jews; the omnipresent olives, wine and fish are reminiscent of the Greco-Roman heritage; the Pilgrimage to the Virgin of Rocío reconnects to pre-Christian fertility rites. And the symbolism of the bullfight harkens back to the Paleolithic hunter-painters and to the Roman events celebrated in Italica’s amphitheater, just outside of Seville.
I am certain that had Carl Jung ever spent springtime in Seville, he would have found an authentic “Living Museum” of his “Collective Unconscious,” transcending cultures and time!
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In a very real sense my “Quixotic Affair” with Sevilla has involved three protagonists: myself, Sevilla, and the person the “sevillanos” call my “media naranja” (“the other half of my orange”), the American artist and “torero” John Fulton. A veritable and overt “menage a trois”!
John is the only American to have become a full “matador de toros” in the prestigious “Maestranza Bullring” of Sevilla – an honor John deemed tantamount to a Korean tenor being given all the lead roles in the La Scala Opera Season in Milan. This quest to break into Spain’s taurine world often led John to consider himself a 20th Century “John Quixote,” whose windmills were the Spanish stereotypes of what a bullfighter should or should not be… not tall, not blonde, and definitely not a rich American. He never surrendered his illusion.
John was at the age at which time most rational individuals contemplate retirement when he prepared to fight the last two bulls of his life in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (the same bullring where he had first donned a “suit of lights” forty years previously). In preparation for this momentous and singular event, he had been working out on a “Nordic Track” over the course of a year; he had assembled an exhibition of his art which would be featured at a special show in the San Miguel Art Institute; he had designed and fashioned his own beautiful taurine costume; and he had invited friends and admirers from all over the world to witness his farewell performance.
His triumphant encounter with the bulls that afternoon awarded him the maximum trophies. As he was being carried out on the shoulders of the crowd to the shouts of “To-re-ro, To-re-ro!”, John’s “Dulcinea” bestowed upon him a magnificent bronze statue of Cervantes’ knight, bearing the words “John Quixote”. As I reached down to hand the image to an exultant John, I repeated the words from “Man of La Mancha” that so resonated with him, particularly so since many of John’s friends had concluded that the ultimate madness was to have an encounter with two bulls at this particular time in his life: “Madness? Who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it ought to be!”
John’s other artistic talents (he always considered bullfighting an art) comprised paintings (taurine & equine themes and imagery from Spanish poets), etchings, bullfight “carteles” or posters, jewelry, sculpture, miniatures, books and illustrations on the taurine arts, acting, flamenco dancing, and his innate ability to mesmerize with his story-telling. John and I met in Sevilla as a result of my falling in love with his artistic images (particularly those based upon the poetry of Garcia Lorca) and my having read his book “Bullfighting” in an attempt to understand a spectacle that was viscerally unacceptable to my Anglo-Saxon soul.
Not only did John’s book enlighten me, but our more than twenty years together enriched my life through the quixotic journey that continues today. In the course of our adventure, we discovered that my grandparents and John’s mother were all born in the same little village in Rumania. We both grew up with tales of gypsies and memories of the same special foods and expressions. Indeed, our DNA may have had a common link: two descendants of Trajan, the Roman “Sevillano,” coming together over two millennia later in his native Sevilla!
John’s terrestrial quest ended on February 20, 1998 but he remains a living presence in Sevilla. I have all of his accouterments (capes, swords, even bull’s horns) and continue to give talks and demonstrations on the taurine arts to students and visitors. I am often accompanied in these presentations by a professional matador, John’s “Sancho”, Curro Camacho. I play the part of the bull, (always pardoned), while Curro demonstrates the passes, encouraged by the shouts of “Olé!” from the audience. The following is an excerpt from a homage I composed for John on the tenth anniversary of his death:
“A decade has passed since your departure from this millenary city of Sevilla.
Another spring is dawning and the ancient goddesses await their moment to transcend the barriers of time and to confront the sacrifice which promises renewed life. Your Sevilla continues to don its “suit of lights”: the orange blossom preparing to release its perfume, the ruffles and adornments of flamenco finery, the equines and bovines ready for their moment to shine. All of the art, grace and soul that are part of the DNA of every “Sevillano” are protagonists today, just as they were when they first took you hostage so long ago. You would recognize the face of your Sevilla, John. You would smile and would fall again into the lap of her eternal rhythms….
If you were to pay us a visit now John, you surely would walk proudly into the ring among a multitude of friends that have never forgotten you. And you would again dedicate your triumph to this Sevilla that curses in your blood and that now retains you captive in the amber of her memory forever.”
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Deeply woven into the fabric of what is in the avant garde metropolis of Sevilla, there persist tangible and transcendent ancient rhythms of what ought-to-be. These spirits or “duendes” perform daily and exercise their siren call in serendipitous moments that take one prisoner evermore.
Convivencia is alive . . . in the Alcázar, a 10th Century Muslim fortress, constructed over a Roman Forum, restored by a Christian King with the help of an Arab ruler and a Jewish advisor, a palace in constant use for over 1,000 years.
Youth and age…celebrating together in the street, in bars, in parks, along the riverbank . . . a little gypsy toddler moving to flamenco rhythms while her grandfather marks the beat and her grandmother intones the passionate wail that seems to stem from a collective DNA.
The Spring celebrations . . . Holy Week, the April Fair, the life-death drama of the bulls, all with their universal symbolism of life’s renewal. The senses are enlivened: wine tastes sweeter, music pulsates and friendships deepen.
. . . the way it ought to be!
Like Sevilla’s Guadalquivir River, a transcendent lifeline linking cultures across the millennia, the Quixotic Spirit, arising from its shores, lives today in “Judy’s Sevilla”. The presence of the knight, his squire and his lady is palpable. The “flechazo” (the “blow with Cupid’s arrow) finds its mark and comes to dwell in a new generation of Don Quixotes, Sancho Panzas and Dulcineas — “Living Legends” like the city itself.
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