Seville: Orange Trees in the Old World

I: Sevilla

Seville is one of those cities that incarnate the vital, pumping heart of a country, its veins reaching deep into an old Spain that is felt in its grandiose plazas, its signature fragrance of orange trees and jasmine, the gait of afternoon strollers as they walk, as if kings, the snaking cobblestoned streets. The imagination is incited in this city, which feels at times like a town wanting for you to come closer and sit awhile, lazily, on one of its shaded benches. Here a gloried history of Spain can be read on every building facade and in every park.

We catch the highspeed train from Madrid on a cold morning on Tuesday of Holy Week, and after 2 and a half hours of nap, the train rolls gently into Santa Justa station in Seville after having quietly traversed half the country. The city is tense with its preparations for Easter, under an intermittent cover of clouds; there are already people dressed in their Sunday best lining up to enter neighborhood churches.

Andalusia holds the most important remnants of Spain’s Islamic reign which was toppled only in the 15th century. The Alcazar, or castle, of Seville stands as a testament to this singular history. An enormous palace housed inside a formidable stone wall, the Alcazar contains a complex of buildings and extensive gardens whose construction dates back to the late Middle Ages and which have gone through many stylistic reforms, beginning with those of the Islamic empire, to the “mudejar” ornamentation and the later gothic and barroque styles of the Christian era.

(Photo taken from pasarlascanutas.com; my photos didn’t do the exterior of it any justice)

A visitor must be attentive to detail in such a place: the ceilings and walls are illuminated with the delicate interlaced geometric patterns which define Islamic art, and the colors, which are subtle and vivid at the same time, give life to every surface. Every possible corner is laiden with painstakingly decorated tiles. Empty spaces let in light, which moves easily through arched doorways and into patios; the trickle of water from long, sweeping fountains, the ever-present centerpiece in Moorish palaces, remind one of the constant flow and presence of natural elements. This is not just any overwrought palace or dark, spare castle. It’s a fortress of light.

The gardens which surround the Alcazar are endless. We enter a small labyrinth which poses no challenge, wander across courtyards and up battlements, sit across fountains in patios where paintings still decorate the walls after several centuries. What must it have been like, to see the palaces furnished with rugs and tapestries and to have tea on floor pillows with a view of the gardens? Or to see the interiors illuminated by gas lamps at night, with not a single soul about, with every shadow attesting to the beauty of its surroundings?

We make our way out of the Alcazar, and as we wander the wide avenues, people walk purposefully in the opposite direction, some dressed in the traditional Easter processional garb: colored robes and a tall, pointy hat with holes cut out for eyes, a frightening resemblance to Ku Klux Klan hats. We make our way into a large park and reach the Plaza de España, which is an occasion for an abundance of photos.

A huge, impressive semicircular building with colonnades wraps around canals, where gondolas drift lazily under bridges, and surrounds a spectacular fountain in the center. What’s striking about this plaza, unlike any other in Spain, is it extensiveness and sense of grandeur; the patterned floor designs stretch tirelessly from end to end, the building looms under a gray sky like a vast ship which never moves.

Rain begins to pour as it always does during Easter week in Spain, and we take cover.

No visit to Sevilla is complete without seeing some flamenco. We wend our way in the rain into the tiny streets of the old Jewish quarter and arrive at La Carbonería, a small bar/restaurant with seating and a tiny stage where free, informal performances of flamenco take place nightly.

The place is overrun by tourists, the American kind. While chowing down on some dry tortilla and sipping on tinto de verano, we watch as a trio begin to perform — a dancer in a green dress, a guitarist, and a singer. Not your professional tablao, but for a free show, it’s not bad.

II: Córdoba

Another train, another city — this time to visit the famed Mosque of Córdoba, located at the historic seat of the Islamic empire during the height of its reign, the Califa de Cordoba.

It’s chilly and there’s very little hint of sun as we walk down the quiet streets of the Jewish quarter towards the Mosque after a satisfying breakfast of ham and egg.

Graffiti made to look like a street sign: Against the current.

The Roman bridge.

The Mosque surrounds a large courtyard of orange trees and fountains. The interior is like no other mosque I’ve seen before: the “forest of columns” and the arches, of an alternating red and white, stand solemnly and stretch on like an optical illusion in a mirror.

It’s dim and cool inside, unlike the palaces which are flooded by natural light. The mihrab, the wall which usually faces Mecca (but which in this case faces south), is a masterpiece of minute decoration — marble, stucco, and byzantine mosaics exuberantly colored over a layer of gold and bronze.

The third largest mosque in the world, after the Mosque of Mecca and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, this one was converted into a cathedral after the Re-conquest, and in 1523, a renaissance-style basilica was built at the center of the building. The pamphlets insist on calling it the Cathedral of Cordoba, as well as emphasizing the Christian-visigoth foundations which the subsequent Mosque was built upon. As for me, I haven’t come to see any cathedral.

We leave the Mosque and make our way towards the Alcazar of the Christian Kings, which was constructed in 1328 by Alfonso XI on a pre-existing Andalusian castle.

Built as a military fortress, King Fernando and Queen Isabel spent more than 8 years allocated here during their campaign against the Kingdom of Granada. The castle itself is much more spare than the one in Seville, much more military-looking. However, the gardens are quite impressive, showing off many types of trees, the typical long fountains, and statues of the King and Queen with Christopher Columbus.

The handprints of Queen Isabel.

View from the battlements.

Finally, we have a look at the Museum of the Inquisition. Morbid curiosity brings us here, where tools of torture from medieval times up to the time of the Catholic Inquisition are on display. There’s something about that era that stirs the imagination and induces nausea — a time of dark minds, desensitization to cruelty, an abundance of bloodshed, cold dungeons, disease… Those not privileged or in power were used to suffering; those who were not of the state-sanctified religion, who were accused of witchery, homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery, were tortured in public. Women, above all, were found guilty of such treachery. To see such horrifying tools and machinery which men spent time imagining and crafting, the same ones upon which many died, makes us gag a bit. What atrocious times, we think. But perhaps the tools of such atrocities are the only things that have changed since then.

We get a last glimpse of Cordoba before hopping on the train back to Seville.

At last I’ve found you.

III. Great food, & the Cathedral of Seville

Back at Seville, we manage to catch an Easter procession at dusk, on a small street beside a church. Children stand on the side of the street, holding out balls of wax onto which processioners pour droplets of more wax from their long candles. The parade is anything but joyous; a solemn and heavy atmosphere perpetuates as dusk turns into night, as the trumpeters and drummers play. But only momentarily; soon everyone hits the bars.

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The crowds press in and there is no place to have dinner in any restaurant remotely central. We grab seats at a restaurant tucked in a small alleyway, called Taberna La Sal, which has an atypical and exquisite menu of Mediterranean food, with some Asian touches and tuna as their specialty.

What went into our bellies:

Wanton lasagna with spider-crab and asparagus
Cured cheeses
Wakame omelette with camarons
Tuna steak tartar with mango and sweet soy sauce
Tomato salad, mozzarella, strawberries, and pesto
Pistacchio biscocho and mandarin sorbet

Such a satisfying and lovely dinner after the cold tortilla of the previous night! Not to mention the best lasagna in the whole wide world.  Unfortunately, we gobbled up everything before we managed to take any pictures.

The next day we are intent on entering the Cathedral of Seville, a gothic building constructed over, yep, a pre-existing mosque. By now you know the architectural drill.

The inside is like any large cathedral with its naves, saints, and giant organ, but the exterior of the cathedral is amazing: a soaring bell tower, the Giralda, which announced the Islamic call to prayer in its time as a mosque, is the main centerpiece.

We patiently climb the 104 meters up and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Seville.

It’s incredible the amount of stylistic reforms that the cathedral has gone through since its construction in the 12th century: almohade, mudejar, gothic, renaissance, barroque, neoclassic, and finally neogothic. And eight centuries later it’s still standing as a testament to all of the different architectural epoques it has outlived, and to Spain’s continually fierce spirit of Catholicism.

The tomb of Christopher Columbus.

After leaving the cathedral we roam the streets this time without looking at our map, which is quite worse for wear. Everyone is dressed up to the nines for church, women in elegant black dresses and long black veils, and men in impeccable suits, strolling arm in arm or standing in plazas for an afternoon drink. Every bar is full; the crowds pour into the street where they chat over beers and tapas. We have the same problem: finding a decent place to eat that isn’t mobbed.

After a tiring search we finally luck out — the only table for two at a seafood restaurant called Casa Antonio.

This is where we had the best calamari of our lives. The seafood rice dish and the grilled codfish were also excellent. Seville doesn’t disappoint with its food.

The rest of the afternoon is spent wending our way back to the train station under the cover of an umbrella, pausing to enter small shops or to snap photos of churches and plazas, grabbing coffee and relishing the rainy streets of Seville before returning to Madrid.


Language Power: Political Correctness… and Spain

“If we change language, we change everything.” – Betsy Warland

I read two articles by a Spanish blogger, Sergio Parra, the other day which stuck with me like a little splinter in a nail, perhaps because I wasn’t sure if I completely agreed with him or not. In one article, he talks about the relationship between language and reality, and how the addition of new words to our vocabulary or new ways of expressing certain things can’t possibly change our behaviors or prejudices.  In another similar article, he challenges the idea of political correctness and makes the case that language reform isn’t an effective way of battling racism since it doesn’t address the root of the problem, but rather perpetuates it by emphasizing the otherness of the subject spoken about.

Parra claims that language cannot affect behavior or the reality of things, but rather that language IS reality in itself, that it should, and does, provide a faithful reflection of life – e.g., the Inuits have so many words for snow because their language is consistent with their reality: a plurality of snow forms which exist in their immediate environment. Since there is this direct relationship between words and what is perceived to be true, he says that the usage of politically correct terminology is a moot point since we should call things as they really are. For example, it is highly common in Spain for African immigrants to be called “negros,” and many commentators have agreed with him, making the case that we should call them “as they are” instead of using the more politically correct term, “persona de color,” which seems to be an even more divisive, and not to mention awkward,  term. Something I’ve heard a lot here is that the language you use needs to be interpreted with the intention behind the words, something which in Spain is completely true, more so than in Anglosaxon cultures. Here you can call your best friend a son of a bitch with all the best intention in the world, and no one will bat an eye.

Parra also makes the case that politically correct terms are consistently replaced by other terms deemed even more correct (water closet to toilet, to bathroom, to restroom, to lavatory), and this endless cycle goes on without actually changing the attitudes of the people who use them: “This obsessive substitution of terms shows that words don’t have an influence on the minds of people, but rather on concepts. We could baptize a concept with different names, but the concept still remains as it is, and ends up taking over the new name.”

I have my doubts about his argument, first of all because I come from a country where race is a highly touchy and complicated subject, and where political correctness started officially as a progressive language reform movement in the 1970’s which attempted to eliminate sexist, racist, and pejorative terms from the English language. Spain has only had to deal with immigrants within the last 10 years, and although racism is a growing problem here (more of a latent, instilled racism stemming from ignorance rather than hatred), it’s a country which hasn’t had much experience, relatively, in dealing with foreigners or in incorporating immigrants into its society. So I’m not sure if Parra is speaking just on behalf of his country, but then again it doesn’t all have to do with race. It’s also about the finesse of the language used here, which is quite alarmingly scarce, unless you’re listening to a politician. So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a Spanish person would condemn political correctness, when people here consistently use the words “vagina,” “fuck,” and “whore mother” on an everyday conversational basis (literally).

But, going back to his argument, my question is, from what perspective is he, and his supporters, claiming “reality” and “things as they really are?” How does the use of terminology reveal the relationship between the speaker and the thing spoken about, intention aside? Is refusing to use language that is agreed upon as politically correct really a way to assign a “realer” reality to people and things?

What you see as a “negro,” may be to you a “negro” – that’s your reality that you perceive and that you are perpetuating, the reality which makes skin color the most defining attribute of someone, the linguistic reality which assigns an adjective to a person and prefers to describe a person’s appearance over place of origin. An African person in Spain isn’t called a “black person,” he’s simply “a black” – “un negro.” I am not an “Asian person”, I’m a “Chinese” – “una china,” even though I may be from Korea, Thailand, or Vietnam. My reality is that I’m an Asian American, his reality is that he’s from Senegal. How can we possibly assign ONE corresponding “reality” to the words that we use or the things we perceive? Or one corresponding interpretation to the words that are relayed?

I want to make the case that the meaning of words, just like reality, is tinted, warped, and influenced by the whole gamut of other synonymous and antonymous words that can be chosen for different occasions and registers, and this power to choose the language one uses CAN change perceived reality, since, in Parra’s argument, language not only reflects it but names it. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which was actually the basis of the language reform movement, considers language as a “guide to social reality” that powerfully conditions all our thinking and which basically constructs what we perceive as reality.

For example, I can’t help thinking of the word “bed” if I conjure up an image of a bed. But if I talked enough Spanish nonstop for a week, that immediate word might change to “cama.” But I if I say “cama,” for example, the image that comes to mind may be my bed in Spain. The overall concept is similar, but definitely not the same; each synonymous word has its own history, layers of meaning, and connotation. If I am called “señorita” at a bar rather than “chinita,” I immediately feel much more respected than being called the latter. That may not be the cultural reality of the speaker, but that’s the case for me, on the receiving end of the conversation. It’s true, many of these differences and misunderstandings are cultural, but when the population of a country begins looking a lot different, I think there needs to be a heightened effort in communication and in understanding the cultural references of other people. That is where political correctness and cutting down on stereotyping comes in. Contrary to what Parra says, I believe that words DO influence the way we think and behave.

I don’t think that an institutionalized language reform can actually decrease racism, nor can it change prejudiced attitudes overnight. Nor should its goal be, like Parra believes, to “exhibit purer thinking,” and nor should we enforce it like the language police. But, I do believe that when we pause to think about the words we use, we are choosing to relay not just our own perspective and reality but are also attempting to incorporate that of our interlocutor and anyone who may be listening. We are valuing their judgment and their interpretation of our words, practicing a heightened sensitivity to what we say, exercising our skill to convey the correct message with the appropriate language, and therefore, yes, showing more respect to our listeners.

I’m not saying that I will raise hell if someone calls me “chinita” or that Africans should be called “personas de color.” However, I do think that easy labels and stereotypes can be bred from lazy habits, off-hand comments, and badly chosen language, and the collective conscious created by society around certain people, including prejudices and conditioned thinking, can be triggered upon the use of one word. We are held accountable for each and every word we choose to use, since words, as powerful as they are in conditioning us, do not control our reality — WE do.


Qué calor!!

One of the images that come with the weather report. Other than sun, sun, and some clouds, the temperature is at 35 degrees today, max. Now I know why the Spanish take siestas, especially in the summer! It’s almost impossible to walk or think in this heat. Time to get in the pool…