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Volume 41. No. 2.
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A Moveable Fiesta
Conor Friedersdorf '02 returns to Seville and finds its magic still intact.

I first saw Seville on a sun-baked August afternoon spent hauling suitcases and a hefty backpack over cobbled stones. Orange trees lined the narrow streets where I weaved past two old men walking side-by-side, sidestepping horse droppings left by the carriages that traverse the city. I found the tourist office closed for siesta—I’d hoped to buy a decent map there to guide me to my hostel. As evening approached, I walked, guidebook in hand, past streets—not drawn on my map—that lacked signs to mark their names or numbers to identify their whitewashed, yellow-trimmed buildings. Finally I decided to rest my weary shoulders and aching feet at a tapas bar where the waiter took 10 minutes to serve my Cruzcampo beer.

The city seemed … perfect.

In the summertime, Sevillanos eschew El Centro’s broad plazas, Arab-tiled courtyards of La Macarena and barrio Santa Cruz’s labyrinthine alleys for the Guadalquivir’s breezy banks. Multitudes who can’t afford air-conditioned apartments—and refuse to wear shorts—congregate to eat, to drink and just to be. Of the many bars and restaurants, American students tend to favor those on Calle Betis, a picturesque lane that parallels the river. How many nights we joined young Sevillanos there, buying fifths of alcohol packaged with ice, cups and Fanta to drink on the long concrete bench with our backs to the river.

Those who know autumn in Seville share many memories: the season’s final bullfights, La Carbonaria’s nightly flamenco shows, dining amid dangling legs of cured ham and learning the meaning of madrugada—“the wee hours of the morning”—while returning home after sunrise, a churro in hand, whistling whatever Spanish pop song played last at the discothèque. We study-abroad students arrived apprehensive, wondering what to expect from our host families, our Spanish classes, our expatriate life. We enjoyed the challenge of linguistic immersion and the ease of everything else. We drank copious amounts of tinto de verano, danced many nights past dawn, loved or hated Spanish food, somehow culled self-confidence from our independence, and sooner or later came to love Sevilla, feeling we’d earned the right to call it that—indeed unable to call it anything else.

Then we felt as so many Sagehens do when study abroad concludes: affection for our adopted city; sadness at our departure; a sincere conviction that we’ll return one day to live there again. Once repatriated, we annoy friends and family by speaking in our second tongue and retelling small cultural differences. Slowly that fades; we reinvest ourselves in Pomona; we graduate, find jobs, get promotions, marry—or at least begin to attend classmates’ weddings. I took on a job as a newspaper reporter, immersing myself in Los Angeles area politics, suburban development, zoning laws, urban planning. I kept in touch with Pomona friends; sometimes we’d talk wistfully about our semesters abroad. Yet most of us will never go back, I realized one day.

But I did. Earlier this year.

On the express train that connects Madrid to Sevilla, I marveled that I’d finally returned. As it sped south, I relived four years of nostalgia for that city—craving its sights, its food, its feel. Now I’d spend the spring there researching a novel. Already I’d traveled to a dozen European cities, sightseeing and writing, saving my four months in Sevilla for last. In snowy Berlin, frigid Budapest and pricey Copenhagen, I fantasized about nights spent in short sleeves under Spanish palm trees sipping 1 Euro beers. As the station drew near, however, nagging questions stoked fear: How would Sevilla be without Mike, Ana, Lauren, Vanessa, Morgan—those people whose presence during my semester abroad cannot be separated from my love for the city? How would it be to live there again, to rent an apartment after months skipping from city to city every few days?

All train stations and most neighborhoods around them are uglier than whatever city they serve. Outside Santa Justa, having finally returned, the city seemed ordinary—surely not the place I’d done so much to return to. “Never come back to Sevilla,” a study abroad advisor once told us. Was she right? In the ensuing moments, my cab pulled from the station, drove a half-dozen blocks and emerged on Menendez Pelayo, where the city I remembered begins. How could I have doubted?

In the spring, Sevilla blooms anew, its public gardens alive with roses, geraniums and bougainvilleas, its nightlife emerging from the brief wintertime chill that proves too cold for Sevillanos to congregate outside in their normal fashion. Easter week brings the famous Semana Santa processions—Catholics clad in robes and hoods carrying candles, crucifixes or statues of Jesus and Mary through the city’s narrow streets and winding alleys. Soon after Sevillanos celebrate Feria de Abril, an annual fiesta enjoyed in flamenco dresses and traditional Spanish suits. Under pastel-colored lights, they pack into casetas set up side-by-side at the fairgrounds to eat tapas, drink manzanilla and dance Sevillanos.

My most memorable days passed when the city could be itself. My first day back I’d taken an apartment near the Alameda in a neighborhood where quaint plazas and lively tapas bars are untouched by the tourists who keep to the city’s royal gardens and gothic cathedral. My roommates: students from France, both regions of Belgium, Germany and Italy. We became fast friends speaking Spanish, our common language, and living the city as best we could. Many days I wandered, content to watch school children playing pelota against a wall, or shop-keeps drawing down metal shutters during midday siesta, or Vespas speeding past Calle Alfalfa, their drivers hoping to show off for the scores of Spanish and international students who gather each night outside Bare Nostrum and Cabo Loco Bar.

As I soaked up the city—fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast, gazpacho or spinach with garbanzo beans or tortilla Española later on—I remembered how lovely it is to enjoy each meal, spending an hour or more on a leisurely lunch, or sipping wine with a late dinner. Walking its streets, I remembered how fine it felt to get from place to place putting one foot in front of the other, able to enjoy those details that can be appreciated at four though not 54 miles per hour.

Ernest Hemingway called Paris “a moveable feast,” noting that those lucky enough to live there while young will be able to take something of it with them forever. I’ve lived twice in Paris and twice in Sevilla. The latter is my moveable feast, though after my first visit I forgot to take along as much as I might have.

In the years that followed, working in the world of American politics and language and ideas, I often reflected on the cerebral skills Pomona confers. No doubt its graduates are achievers. Yet my second visit to Sevilla reminded me that my semester abroad remains the College’s greatest gift: years after graduation it led me back to that city—a place where thoughtful visitors are taught that cultivating enjoyment for everyday pleasures has a lot to do with living life right.

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