The thing about Places

“Places all have their own characters,
and returning to a city where you have lived before
is like coming home to an old friend.

Chocolat, Joanne Harris –

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Granada & Sevilla, Spain / June 2012


vaya toro

This past Sunday I went with several friends to my first bullfight or corrida del toros here in Sevilla at the Plaza del Toros de la Real Maestranza – reportedly the most important place to fight in Spain. The venue itself is stunning, and was constructed in the 17th – 18th century. It is oval shaped, as opposed to the traditional circle, which I’m told gives the matador a slight advantage when running from the bull. When my parents visited in March, we toured the museum and I was eager to go back and see it full of people and pageantry.

What we saw was a novice bullfight, or a Novillada con Picadores. There were three matadors: Víctor Barrio, David Galván and Vanesa Montoya. Our first surprise was their youth. Barrio is 24 years old – also the tallest and most experienced with 26 novilladas and 56 orejas* (ears) to his name. Galván is the youngest at a fresh faced 19 years old, with 13 novilladas and 20 orejas of his own. Montoya is the oldest and indeed a female, and she is my age (27) – this was her debut con caballos (with horses).

The fact there was a female matador was another surprise. I was curious enough to do some searching online about this phenomenon and was pleasantly surprised. NPR did an interview in March with matadora Lupita Lopez who reportedly joins the ranks of merely four professional female fighters. Likewise, LIFE magazine did a photo series called Female Matadors: A Fierce Beauty that does a great job of showcasing these strong women bucking a machismo trend.

Here are some of the basics of the fight we witnessed. There were 6 bulls, ranging in weight from 449 kg to 496 kg. That’s between 989 pounds and a whopping 1,093 pounds. Each matador fights two bulls. The drama begins with the pomp and circumstance of the Real Maestranza, where all of the fighters enter the bullring with their fighting companions. These companions include picadores (fighters on horseback who use a lance to weaken the bull), capeadores (fighters on foot who work with the capes to distract the bull) and banderilleros (fighters on foot who use two short sticks to stab the bull at the base of the neck).

The bull is let out of the gate across the arena from the fighters. The capeadores distract the bull and it takes several passes around the ring. The matador also takes a few passes with the bull to get the feel of it, and judge its actions. Picadores enter on heavily protected and blindfolded horses, with lances in hand. They provoke the bull to charge the horse, and use a lance to stab the bull – twice. Once the horsemen leave, banderilleros enter the ring with wooden sticks, or barbed darts. They provoke the bull and sidestep at the last minute, stabbing the bull with two darts each – this happens three times.

Finally with the last stage called the suerte, the matador begins to work with the bull. First s/he raises his hat to dedicate the kill to the person presiding over the fight, a person in the crowd or the crowd at large. We got to see one of the fighters throw his hat in disgust, and one of our fellow spectators informed us that if the bull is not a good one, the matador will refuse to dedicate it because it has not been a good fight. Some say that if the matador’s hat falls a certain way, it indicates bad luck – bullfighters are reportedly very superstitious. Wouldn’t you be?

Each fighter has a slightly different stance and posture, although each exuded confidence and bravado. The tallest fighter, Barrio, introduced us to a successful paso where the fighter taunts the bull with the infamous red cape, and succeeds in standing still while the bull passes incredibly close to his / her body. When this is executed well, the crowd shouts “Olé!” Other than these shouts, the majority of the fight is conducted in silence – a code of conduct is enforced and although the crowd is full of both tourists and Spaniards, the fight is taken seriously by all.

Numerous pasos take place before the matador reaches for his sword. He faces the bull and attempts to make a clean stab into the back of the neck – into the vertebrae and down into the heart. Unfortunately the female fighter had some trouble with this and we had to watch several uncomfortable minutes at the end of both of her fights. The crowd became restless whether from disgust or disappointment and the old men gestured to each other in frustration yelling “con fuerza hija” (with force, girl). The matador’s companions will come forward to deliver the death blow after the bull has fallen, and the horses arrive to give the bull a circle around the ring before pulling it outside.

The bullfight was fascinating and at times, gruesome or terrifying. I was not a fan of how the horses were nearly flipped by these 1,000 pound bulls, although they appear to be well protected. Equally, I wasn’t ready for the fierceness of the bulls – several pawed the ground before a charge and were faster than I could have imagined. Aside from the botched death blow by the female matador, we saw the youngest matador thrown high into the air by the bull. Being so small, he fit directly between the bull’s horns and at one point the bull caught his hip with a horn and sent him cartwheeling into the air. He somehow bounced right up off the ground and continued to fight both valiantly and successfully.

Yes I know bullfights are cruel for the bull, but it is something deeply rooted in Spanish tradition and history. Seeing a matador face down a 1,000 lb animal with his suit (traje de luces) sparkling in the late afternoon sun is something special. Watching these young Spaniards take control of a bull while remaining composed and confident is incredible. While I may not see another fight any time soon, I am very glad I took the chance to see one here in Sevilla.

Y aqui algunos fotos … olé!

*Orejas are awarded when a matador fights extraordinarily well and the official presiding over the fight offers him the ear of the bull. Where do they put these things – on the wall? Gross.

how to scavenge a city

Early last week while out having drinks at our beloved 100 Montaditos, someone mentioned a scavenger hunt in Sevilla. This idea quickly morphed into a full blown fiesta, with plans for Saturday night. On Friday a small group gathered at our piso to make suggestions ranging from stupid to outrageous to downright impossible. Saturday dawned with a feeling of competition, and the promise of a big Mexican lunch cooked by several friends.

Teams were formed by random draw, and we had 13 people to play. Lists in hand (holding 46 tasks in total) and cameras charged, we hit the streets at 7:30 p.m. with a 2.5 hour time limit. My group proceeded to attack the following tasks with gusto:

  • take a photo with a señor / señora (+5) .. Simo found an old lady sitting on a bench and Jen had to convince one guy, but another demanded a hug after seeing the first take with the other guy.
  • find 5 different NO8DO symbols (+5) .. as seen on a manhole cover, building sign, magazine stand, street sign and bike rack.
  • find a menu with incorrect English (+1) .. Team 2 gets the win for this one with “Fierce Potatoes”
  • photograph graffiti’ed recylcing bins (+1 each) .. we managed to photograph five of these beauties
  • picture of a bride or communion niño (+5) .. Team 2 found a bride at Plaza de España, and we found a marinero (sailor boy) just outside Plaza de Encarnación
  • photograph a matching pijo family (+2) .. worth less points because they are everyone. Many Sevillano families participate in this bizarre trend where the whole family dresses alike..
  • drink a full beer at different 100 Montaditos (+1 each) .. paying homage to our favorite chain restaurant
  • photo with a street cleaner (+2) wearing vest (+1) cleaning (+2) .. while unable to secure vest and broom, we were able to get the coveted photo in Plaza Nueva
  • ride in a horse drawn carriage (+2) drive a horse drawn carriage (+5) .. why settle for riding in the back when you can hold the reins?
  • dress up at a souvenir shop (+1 per article of clothing) .. Ivan in an apron, holding fan and castanets, wearing a flower and carrying a bag. Check!
  • pick and eat a city orange (+4) .. que asco (how disgusting) .. outside the Cathedral
  • drink a beer that’s not a lager (+2) .. Guiness at Flaherty’s, no problem
  • trade shirts with a stranger (bonus for runner) (+10) .. we encountered a large group of Frenchmen and one in particular with a stunning blue button down with very patriotic white stars. And a mullet. He unbuttoned his shirt at the mere mention of clothing and slid into Ivan’s Betis t-shirt with a smile. He also passed off the wig and the aviator sunglasses for a priceless set of photos.
  • team member in the drivers seat of a taxi (+5) .. on a roll a few steps away from the Frenchmen, we coerce an old guy out of his cab and put Arely in the front seat.
  • photo behind a bar with a leg of jamón (+4) .. turned away for sanitary reasons at 5Jotas, we roll to good old Meson Serranito for a photo approved by bartenders and patrons alike. Mmmm, ham.
  • act out a corrida del toros in front of Plaza del Toros (+3) .. we’ve made it to the river and Simo whips off his shirt for a capote while Jen and Ivan show their horns for the fight
  • hug a police officer (+4) if you’re wearing his hat (+2) .. while we could not get the officer to part with his hat (during an official religious procession) – he did reluctantly offer Jen a 2 second hug & mug for the camera
  • kiss a teammate on the Triana bridge (+3) .. watching the clock we stop for a smooch on the bridge
  • all but one team member in the Guadalqivir River (+10) .. in true team spirit, my team passed off their cameras and stripped down to their underwear to hop in the river that runs through Sevilla. Down to about 30 minutes to go, we are in Triana, approx 15 minutes walking from our final destination in centro.
  • videotape a Trianero explaining why Triana es la leche (+7) .. an easy one to do, but made more awesome by the fact a soaking wet Jen sits down next to a fisherman to ask why exactly Triana is the best barrio (we all know its true).
  • take a shot on Calle Betis (+3) .. at the home for all foreigners, we take a shot of tequila while the girls drip river water on the floor.
  • picture of La Giralda from a terrace (not a team member) (+7) .. we sprint into a riverside restaurant and up to the terrace before the waiters can harass us for our rudeness. What? this is Spain after all.

Dodging the aforementioned religious procession we sprint to a Sevici stand and make our way back, most assuredly arriving late. On the way we photograph a SMART car parked perpendicular to the curb (+3) and I take a photo in a jungle gym (+2). With the most transportation difficulties ever (flat tire, two people on a bike, crash) we arrive ten minutes late and sweating like pigs. Due to the time penalty we are not so victorious, but we have a damn good time.

Cheers to you, friends, for a job well done!

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the 12 hour communion

Another first this weekend here in southern Spain: a First Communion. As you know, I give private English classes here in Sevilla and one of my students is a 10 year old girl who I adore. Several weeks ago she invited me to her First Communion and I was eager to accept such a gracious invitation. I came down from Madrid late Friday night and woke up early Saturday morning for what would be one of the longest events I’ve ever witnessed.

9 a.m. bus to the school / church
After a morning without electricity, I wander out into the already warm neighborhood and catch a bus to Los Remedios. The C2 runs toward the Prado bus station and beach goers are the only ones joining me for the ride. I find the school and therefore, the church, without difficulty. Ducking inside to beat the heat I settle into a pew toward the back. The church is large, and simple. It is a welcome relief from the ostentatious cathedrals and eye popping Gothic gold that usually accompanies a Spanish iglesia.

9:40 a.m. music and revelers
As one would expect, the First Communion has very little to do with religion and a whole lot to do with socializing. I watched people of all ages file into the church, dressed in their summer finery. I shrug off my wrap once I see other people with bare shoulders in the chapel. There are two kisses on every cheek and cameras, video cameras and parental paraphernalia galore. I spot my student’s sister and parents and settle down to wait.

10 a.m. almost on time, and here come the kids
By some beautiful miracle, it looks like we will start on time. I am informed later on that this is because the church turns out two communions every Saturday in May – one at 10 a.m. and another at 12 Noon. Whatever the reason, on with the show.

the mini bride

10:03 a.m. here’s my girl!
My student walks in, looking like a mini bride in her brilliant white dress. She is at least a head taller than her classmates and I make a mental note to start talking about volleyball with her – as if she has time for another activity besides her English, dancing, painting, horseback riding and basketball. I am surprised to see a small class – only 16-20 students. Her dad tells me later that it is typical to do several ceremonies with less students, rather than what I’m used to seeing in the US. The church is packed and there are less than 2 dozen kids, so obviously the organizers know what they’re doing.

Fast forward: 11 something a.m. I sat in the right spot!
Although I am behind the majority of the congregation, I’m across the aisle from the offering of flowers, candles and wine (oil?). So here comes my student down the aisle on her way to pick up an offering to take up to the priests. I have to smile because she has been fidgeting the whole time and here in the middle of the aisle she starts to look around at the guests. She glances over her shoulder and I wave at her from the end of the pew. I am rewarded with a smile and she sticks her tongue out at me, raising her eyebrows like “can you believe this stuff?”

11:40 a.m. where is the organ?
Another surprise here in a Spanish church is the lack of the monster organ and the ominous hymns. Near the front sit three singers, a guitar player and a girl with a tambourine. This lends a folksy sound to the ceremony, and accompanies all of the religious songs in a way I’ve never heard before. The congregation sings along and does the hokey pokey when they’re supposed to, and at last we are done. The poor usher is shooing people out of the aisles as they try to walk the children down to the front door. The resulting sprint for the central aisle is chaos.

not a bad view

12:15 p.m. let’s get a drink
I’ve found my student’s family, told my kiddo she’s beautiful and we disembark for a drink at a private club along the river. At this point, we are about 15-20 people. Family, friends, and cousins out the wazoo. The children are amazed that I’m in attendance and that I speak English. There are a lot of “how are you” and “where are you from” -s going around. All this with the backdrop of the Rio Gaudalqivir and a blindingly sunny day.

1:32 p.m. we’re late, but we’re with the novia
Half serious and half joking, there have been several references to “la novia” – literally – the bride. Regardless, she is the star of the day and since we arrive in the same car, it’s ok that we’re late. After all we had to go upstairs and say hi to the dog before we left. There is a beautiful restaurant in front of us, with a typical Andalucian patio and goldenrod colored walls. Through a big wooden door I see a few tables and realize that this site has been reserved just for us. In the end we will be approximately 40 guests.

2 p.m. let the kids eat and pass the hors d’ouevres
The kids get their own table outside and they happily gnosh on tapas and later, fish and chips. They are high on coca cola and oohing and ahhing over the gifts. There is an ipod, a camera, a Nintendo DS, ipod speakers, and gift cards like whoa. I gave her a bag full of what she likes best – crayons, markers and pencils. Most importantly – imported from America. (Thanks, Mom!) Crayola is a big hit, and the kids exclaim left and right about this super cool American gift. Who needs an ipod when you can have crayons, right?

Fast forward. I haven’t looked at my watch in hours
After over an hour of butlered hors d’ouevres we head into the dining room. We start with salmorejo and ensaladilla which is cool and delicious. The highlight of the night is when they open the large wooden door to allow not one but two people to carry in the biggest pan of paella I have ever seen. It is probably the size of the dining room table in my apartment, and damn – it is GOOD.

6 p.m. Karaoke and games
My student is the epitome of creativity, and has organized a list of games for her friends to play. There are sack races and sponge races and a water balloon toss. At the end of the day there are 5 scraped knees, all girls. My student has shed her bride’s dress for a sensible pink sundress and is running around like a maniac. Her mom has plugged in the laptop and started a karaoke program, which the adults seem to pay more attention to than the kids.

9 p.m. Jumping rope and despedidas
Yes, we are still here, now 12 hours since I left my house. We have moved to the patio and now the dads have their ties and jackets off and everyone is taking a turn jumping rope. One woman jumps in with her fire engine red high heels on and does even better than the guys in their dress shoes. I take a spin or two myself, holding on to my dress and trying to keep up with the younger cousins.

10 p.m. The sun disappears
The restaurant staff (all 3 of them) start cleaning up inside and we start making noises about heading home. This doesn’t happen for another 50 minutes, but we make a good effort and pack the cars. I have 5 missed calls on my phone because we are having a party back at my apartment and it started about an hour ago. By the time I set my foot in the house, it’s 11 p.m. and the party is roaring.

All throughout the day, my student and her family kept checking in on me, making sure I was eating – drinking – having fun. Their friends and family were so welcoming, it was an absolutely pleasure to be a part of this event. Driving home at the end of the night, her mom asked me if it was a long day. I said no.. it was a full one.

feria for everyone

Feria pa’ to’. (In actual Spanish: Feria para todos / Feria for everyone).

I finally found it .. the feria that exists for the general public and not just the wealthy private citizens. Want to know where it is? Calle Infierno – the place where all the attractions are. While we did not partake in any of the rides, we had a grand old time watching the kids in their flamenco attire ride the Toros Sentados and la noria (ferris wheel). This was far more appealing to me than the casetas. There, I said it!

They had every ride you could imagine, just steps away from the casetas, caballos and manzanilla (tents, horses and wine). Let it be known that the Sevillanos have no concerns about getting on a wildly spinning ride while dressed flamenca. I say, bravo – hold on to your flower, señora.

There were several stand outs amidst the explosion of colors, lights, smells and sounds. One – the ponies. Sadly, they were hooked up to a small wheel and had to walk around and around like a carousel. I hated it on sight, and I don’t think the ponies appreciated it either. Two – the large and small versions of literally everything, as well as the repetition of rides. If your 6 year old wants to get in a bumper car, he has at least 5 options with different styles, music and lights. Three – the lottery ticket system for prizes. As always, the Spanish remain lottery crazy, and it turns out Feria is no different. Our favorite of the four or five ginormous booths was giving away legs of jamón, bottles of wine, loaves of bread and cheese. The ham legs really set the precedent. Who needs an iphone if there is ham to be had? and four, let’s give it up to the giant Native American figures outside the Enchanted Forest. They made me think of Dane Cook’s skit about 80 foot tall Indians… coming to get you, Spain!

My last tour around Feria (four nights in total) involved festival food – which shocked me. After hearing how expensive food could be, and seeing a 9 euro charge for a jarra of rebujito, I was fully prepared to leave the fairgrounds in search of nourishment. Not so! In the last row by the crane games sat a series of stands with hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream and YES – kebabs. A kebab, some fries and a beverage came out to 5 or 6 euros in total. One happy stomach and an excuse not to get on the wildly spinning ride with the neon lights.

I’ll leave you with some photos and an amusing link – check out some of these caseta names, as given to me by Sarah: