TRAVELOGUE #7 - Culture



April 30




Avi at the keyboard



Last week we emerged from the great Mosque (now largely turned into a cathedral) in Cordoba to hear the sound of drumming.




It was a large demonstration of young people gathered before the mosque and protesting the presence of Burger King in that prominent location.  Culture, they said, was not just heritage buildings, but also the foods that people consume.

This comes strongly to mind as I move between the tapas bars of Seville.


If Jesus were to have held the Last Supper in Seville, then Catholics around the world today would have an array of tiny dishes before them each time they went to communion.  Here, tapas is THE culture.  Every night the streets swarm with Sevillianos crowding into and spilling out of tapas bars.  We’ve come to eat small portions of peppers stuffed with cod, of spinach with garbanzos, of tiny fried fishes whose bones you hope won’t get stuck in your throat, of vegetable pate and of chicken wings. But we had to hunt a bit, since the overwhelming dish at tapas bars is thinly sliced ham, or pork in one of many forms.  Actually, I’m wrong.  The overwhelming dish at tapas bars is not the tapa at all - it’s the beer!  In fact, it’s nearly impossible to order food alone at one of these places - the strained incredulity on the faces of the folks behind the bar has succeeded in intimidating us into downing more beer in a week than we’d normally put away in two years.  Face it - it’s that or starve.


Which brings me to the Feria de Abril.  The reason we’ve come back to Seville (we first came this way about a month ago).  The Feria is some celebration of spring, of Flamenco, which has been growing here for years.  The horse-drawn carriages which normally take the tourists around town have all been decked out in fancy harnesses and formal wear for the drivers and take Sevillians to the Fair grounds and through it.  And the Sevillians are themselves dressed to the hilt - every female in this town must own a flouncy dress with matching scarf and haircomb.

Many own more than that, as the fair runs eight days.  Sort of like the holiday of Sukkot. And like the holiday of Sukkot, this one depends heavily upon living in booths.  The booths, called casetas, are tent-like structures which are all arrayed in rows upon rows in one section of the city.  

About five or ten of them are public, run by the municipality or political parties.  But the rest of them are private - casetas run by church brotherhoods, professional groups, societies of friends, or just private families.  When I say ´the rest of them´, I mean literally over a thousand - this thing is HUGE.  And what goes on inside these booths? More eating and drinking!  Some have formal sit-down dinners for themselves and friends, but most have flowing alcohol and tapas, plus a chance to dance La Sevillana.




La Sevillana is a beautiful thing to watch.  It’s a two-person dance (and a dance floor usually has many couples going at it) with waving arms, partners swirling around each other, and all very formula. The music, to my ear, is repetitive, but the dancers, especially when wearing these colourful dresses, are a joy to watch.

And probably every teenage girl in Seville knows the dance (they probably take it in PE).  Last week we watched a large group dancing it in the park at an Oxfam event designed to raise consciousness about fair-trade coffee and corporate control (would it surprise you to learn that they sold tapas, beer and Coca Cola at this event - but no coffee?  Nothing surprises me anymore)


Anyway, last night we spent until 3 AM at the Sukkot-Bacchanalia, largely aided by the fact that we were invited into one of the booths and handsomely supplied with manzanilla - a local variety of dry white sherry. Actually, that’s the second time in two days we’ve been invited to join people.  The previous night we were passing a bar where a local guitarist was just sitting and playing a wonderfully fast-fingered flamenco, and a local lady, somewhat drunk, was belting out ballads.  Someone saw us standing and watching, and waved us in.   Now I have to tell you that this is VERY unusual. Tourists in Spain are like the cats in my neighbourhood.  We relate to each other when we meet, but have little to do with the resident humans for whom we are simply background. Like the cat/human dynamic, the tourist/resident dynamic has its own symbiotic elements, as we depend upon them, and many of them upon us, for our food and shelter.  What a contrast from Cuba, where we were constantly greeted, invited, talked with, hustled and hassled.  A mixed blessing!  Here in Spain folks leave you alone which, while being far more considerate than than the ´friendship´ we encountered in Cuba, offers us far less opportunity to actually get to know anyone or how they live. You might attribute this to national character, or maybe just to numbers - more folks go through the Alhambra alone in one week than visit Cuba in an entire year. So while we were somewhat surprised to be invited to join the bar group the other night, we were not surprised to learn that the fellow who invited us was Mexican.


But back to the bar scene:   While Ruth and I have been frequenting the bar/cafe establishments in search of food, the other 99.8% have been frequenting them because that’s just what you do.  Go to bar.  Order a tapa.   Get a glass. Stand there and talk.  And talk.  And order another glass.  And talk.  Until long into the morning hours (or through the entire of the afternoon siesta time).   Now I’m no great expert on the bar scene at home, but I sure do see one huge difference.  There’s almost no music!  Where are the singer/songwriters? the punk bands? the Elvis impersonators or their local equivalent?   Within five blocks of my house, Main Street has three different locales where local music is performed, and there’s a whole lot more if I look at the pages of the Georgia Straight.  Granted, Vancouver is a bigger city than most of the places we’ve been, but I bet the local bar in Spuzzum has some local R&R group on Friday and Saturday nights.  But not here.  I don’t know where the local musicians get any coverage, but I’ve scoured the streets at night looking for music  (Ruth: "Avi, it’s late.  Can we go home now?"     Avi: "But I might be missing something!") and rarely come up with much. But the streets of Seville are lively at 1 AM, the bars are crowded with folks interacting with each other, and who am I to argue that this isn’t culture?





Another cultural icon that we’ve finally seen is The Bullfight.



Now I admit that I don’t know a damn thing about bullfighting, even though we’ve been to two museums dedicated to the sport (sic). I’ve seen the suit worn by the great Manolete on that fateful day in 1947 when he was gored to death, and seen the hide of the bull that did him in. (Took some fotos of that)




Why, I’ve even seen the head of the mother of the bull who did him in (Ruth took the foto of that one!)

I paid big bucks to get two tix to the fight two days ago, and had many people assure me that I’d picked a good day ("Joselito - un gran torero!") And we sat patiently through six ritualistic undoings of powerful animals to the point where each was weakened enough that some guy in fancy tights could put a sword into it and end the suffering.  And I must say I’m still confused.



So I watched the crowd.  Ten thousand people in that bullring and not once did they do The Wave!  You call that a sport?


Seriously, what amazed me was the way the entire crowd hushed completely during the final passes between the bull and the matador.  Total silent concentration - punctuated by the occasional choruses of Ole! when either the bull or the matador (I was never sure which) did something special (I was never sure what).


One final thing.  I went and got a haircut yesterday morning.

The radio in the shop just played local music and ads and nobody was singing in Italian.  But at least I can say I’ve now been to The Barber of Seville.