When I moved to Seville, Spain in November of 2005, the city was preparing for Christmas. Orange trees on both sides of the main drag, Avenida de la Constitución, were weighed down with fruit that served extemporaneously as ornaments. The branches had been strung with starry, blue lights. I thought of my grandfather during the Great Depression once getting only an orange for Christmas. My out-of-work great grandfather then cuffed him for not being happy about it. From scarcity to abundance, in two generations.
These days, I no longer see the orange trees, or, rather, I see them without seeing them. I do see the fallen oranges. The city variety, it turns out, are too bitter to eat. I worry that if the street sweepers don’t come soon to remove them, the rats in my neighborhood are going to be as numerous as the flies.
I remember when the sight of the white doves fluttering around the Seville Cathedral would soothe me with thoughts of world peace, Aphrodite and the Holy Spirit. A dozen years later, I lump the doves in with the pigeons: birds of a feather. . . rats with wings.
On my way back from work when Sevilla Fútbol Club was playing at home, I used to pass the multitude of fans with their red and white scarves tied around their wrists, converging on Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, and would feel a surge of pride that I lived in a city where the pro sports arenas were surrounded by schools, homes and churches. Now, when Sevilla F.C. plays at home, I curse the traffic jams and lack of parking around my building, knowing that the next day, when I’m out in the neighborhood with my kids, the side streets and parks will stink of urine.
Once upon a time, when Sevillians would let rip at the tops of their voices and gesticulate furiously about the most mundane aspects of their lives, I’d marvel at their impulsiveness and passion. I’d tune in my ear, ready to lap up the music of the city, even the most grating, disharmonious composition of notes. Now I’ll see one Sevillian venting to another in the public thoroughfare and think, “It’s as though every pimple in their nether regions were a looming volcano about to erupt and bury the city.” If some local makes the mistake of trying to dump a cauldron of negative energy on me – as we wait on line at the supermarket, for instance – I deflect the assault by saying, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” then I’ll snicker inwardly when the snubbed Sevillian thinks I meant the language.
I miss my eyes of surprise, when prejudices and haste didn’t tarnish my adoptive city. They say we need time to glimpse, sniff out, perceive, strike on and savor the truth, but my senses are far less attuned now than when I arrived here.
After first getting a load of the Real Alcázar, a royal palace, I had to walk up and lay my hands on the walls to make sure those enormous blocks of stone were not the fiber-reinforced gypsum plaster of the Cinderella Castle in Disneyland. These days, when I have to pass the Alcázar, I do so with my head bent and moving right along so that the gypsy women that loiter around Seville’s top-drawer monuments don’t mistake me for a tourist and try to sell me a sprig of rosemary for luck.
I would once walk the maze of ancient masonry between Plaza Alfalfa and Puerta de la Carne, not caring if those echoing alleyways became my prison, and I, a Sevillian Sisyphus, was condemned to spend eternity wearing down cobblestones already scuffed smooth by centuries of use. Now, when I walk this stretch, my only objective is to not get sideswiped by a cab as I circumnavigate the tourists, with their heads buried futilely in fold-out maps.
I used to see the ruin of the Roman aqueduct from the window of the number 24 bus and wonder if Apostle Paul had once blessed the water that ran its course. Nowadays, when I catch the 24 after work, if I happen to look up from my book or newspaper, the aqueduct is nothing more than a sign that we’ve finally left behind the congestion of the center, and there’s only the multitude of the Nervión shopping mall to irritate me before I get home.
My wife is a native Sevillian. I turned the tables on her when I took her to my hometown, New York, for our honeymoon.
“Tell me your three favorite things about the city,” I asked on our way home.
“The snow, the Christmas shoppers, and the squirrels that ate out of my hand in Battery Park,” she said.
When I lived in New York, the snow made my daily commute drag out even more, the throngs of Christmas shoppers would trip me up as I tried to arrive on time to class, and, on Staten Island, my home borough, the squirrels were noxious neighborhood pests that snuck into attics and nested there, disrupting the homeowners’ sleep. That is, my Sevillian wife chose as her New York highlights three things that had once been obstacles and threats to my good spirits.
Thanks to her, I began to recall how the snow could transform a roaring and hostile metropolis into a blissfully hibernating beast, and that the holiday shoppers, with their brightly colored bags and leisurely pace, added a festive touch to a city normally consumed by greed and competitiveness, and that the squirrels, as long as they stayed in the parks, reminded us that nature and civilization, even civilization at its most extreme, could co-exist without one threatening the other with extinction.
Somehow, we must preserve our eyes to see the orange trees.
John Julius Reel, born and raised in Staten Island, NY, has lived for 12 years in Seville, Spain. He is the author of a memoir in Spanish, ¿Qué pinto yo aquí?, and has collaborated as both writer and editor in El derbi final, an award-winning book about the Seville soccer derby. His essay, “My Darlings,” was recognized as “notable” in Best American Essays 2015. Reel’s Sevillian andanzas have appeared in Gravel, Sweet, Cleaver Magazine, and Thread.
Next up, The First of April
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