Friday, July 8, 2016

What a world we live in

Plaza Doña Elvira, where I wrote this blog
Every time I look at the news, it's terrorism, nutty politicians, wacky weather, economic spasms, and 38 flavors of gossip and hoo-ha.  All in all, pretty depressing stuff.  Yet the world around us, for the most part, isn't depressing at all.  From my perspective, it's a grand new adventure every day. 

I'm hardly a champion of technology, or progress, or an uncritical fan of the modern age.  My travels and years have taught me that there's plenty of suffering in the world, and it's not at all evenly shared.  And I'm by no means immune to nostalgia.  But it's important to put things in context, and not miss the small wonders that make this a wonderful time to be alive.

Yesterday I took a day trip to Cordoba.  Thanks to the outstanding Spanish rail system, a 100-mile journey takes a mere 40 minutes on the AVE, a futuristic airplane-on-wheels sort of train.  It's expensive, and somewhat soulless, but it moves like greased glass at up to 250 kph, hydraulic pumps tilting the cars off their wheels on turns, all but silent thanks to being electric.  It features a bar car, or cafetería, with blonde faux-wood kidney-shaped tables, and counters under the windows which are specially modified to be the right height to gaze out of while leaning on the counters or tables.  Recessed lights in the ceiling mimic a starry sky.  By morning it gets busy serving cappuccino, and by late afternoon it gets rowdy serving cocktails, and, sometimes, actual draft beer.  And they take American Express.
Why the long face, Speedy?
Call me a terminal optimist, but I find it hard not to feel pretty good about the state of the world while sipping a gin and tonic on an air-conditioned train speeding past olive groves and stone farmhouses three times as fast (and much smoother and quieter) as I could legally drive.  Globalization has brought plenty of evils, but at moments like this it seems pretty nifty, and those who seek to make violent disruptions, or relentless critiques, completely missing the point.
Happy hour at 250 kph
I love trains so much I'd be happy to ride a route one way, get off and stretch, and get right back on and ride it the opposite way.  But I did have a purpose in going to Cordoba, which was to seek out my favorite pottery, a rustic old Granadan style that seems to be falling out of favor, and perhaps visit a lovely Moroccan tea house I'd found previously.  Having been to Cordoba a few times before, I thought it was time to try taking the bus downtown from the train station instead of a taxi.  I got on the right bus easily enough, happily noting that they take cards or bills or coins, but stop after stop failed to look familiar, until we were clearly past the historic center and I was forced to ask a mother and daughter sitting next to me for help.  They were from out of town too, but the driver chimed in that I'd missed the stop, but no worries, we were almost at the end of the line, and he'd show me just where to get off when we got back to the right stop in about fifteen minutes.
Cordoba's judería (Jewish quarter)

From there an ordinary bus ride turned into an impromptu private tour, as the driver explained to me every neighborhood and monument we were passing, inquiring meanwhile where I was from, and enthusing over the bears and alligators and moose and other amazing elements of the great American landscape he'd seen on TV.  I remembered the time in Chile when I'd missed my stop on the local bus and ridden way out to a dusty sub-suburb of Temuco, where the driver amiably informed me that I should get out and climb aboard the waiting adjacent bus to go back into town and find the stop I'd obviously missed.  I'd seen more of Temuco, and now Cordoba, than I ever would have without making a mistake.  And I'd made a friend--two hours later, as I was circumnavigating the ancient mosque and its throngs of souvenir stores, I heard a persistent honking behind me and finally turned to see bus #3, with the same driver smiling and waving at me.

Gazpacho de naranja
An emblem of religious harmony
I lunched at Casa Nazal, which does for gastronomy what the nearby Sephardic Jewish Museum does for history.  Longtime readers will know that I'm more than a casual foodie, and have eaten my way across five continents.  I do not say lightly, therefore, that the appetizer, orange gazpacho, was one of the most interesting things I've ever eaten: perhaps even more exciting visually than on the palate, despite being served cold it somehow sizzled, apparently from toasted flower petals that garnished the barely sweet, slightly creamy liquid.  The entrée was a bit more "deconstructed" than the high water mark of couscous I enjoyed in Morocco, but the garnish of raisins and pumpkin seeds begged the question why "normal," European food so rarely involves this kind of complexity.  I've only had Sephardic food one other time, at the Johannesburg Jewish Museum, and it too was like something from another planet.  Much more nuanced than many other iterations of "Middle Eastern" food, it bears no resemblance to corned beef, pickles, egg creams, and all the other examples of Jewish food so common in the US, where nearly all Jews are Ashkenazi.  Two different sources contend that there are Jewish families in Turkey, Morocco, and elsewhere who still have the keys to the houses they were evicted from in the 15th century, when Spain expelled all its Jews.  In the 1980s, after Franco, some of them started moving back, and there are now active synagogues in Seville, Granada, and Toledo for the first time in half a millennium.  Why don't jaw-dropping events like this ever make the headlines?

Small wonder in the small streets of Seville
I've long maintained that there's no such thing as a wrong turn.  My experience missing bus stops certainly proves that, and so do the old neighborhoods of Seville, where there are so many abrupt turns, blind alleys, and dead ends that the whole historic center is a play on the old Maine rebuttal, "You can't get there from here"--at least not directly.  Yet it almost never seems apt to say you're "lost" in Seville, because around every other corner blooms a plaza fragrant with jasmine and whispering with a fountain, a plaque in three languages commemorating Muslims, Jews, and Christians sharing this space, an 800-year-old remnant of the original city walls, or a small orgy of azulejos (hand-painted tiles) surrounding a massive carved wooden door.  Even if you ignore the inviting café-bars spreading umbrella-shaded tables in all directions, Seville is a place not to get lost, but found.

I overhear a lot of English-speaking tourists, and they seem to have an unending litany of complaints: it's so hot, the food is too oily, the streets are too narrow, my phone doesn't work here, I'm tired of sangria, all my clothes are dirty, my feet hurt, . . . Who cares?  You're in one of the world's most beautiful cities, the weather is perfect, the food is wonderful, it's safe and clean, everyone is polite and helpful, and you're completely free.  Free to discover, or free to be told--the choice is yours.

Even the bottoms of things are beautiful


  1. Did we ride on that high-speed train? Orange gazpacho...whoa! Dr. Hall would've loved that tale of the 500-year-old house keys!

  2. Thanks so much for the cultural note about the Sephardi and Ashkenazi. I love Sevilla and its surrounding, so much to do, learn, and see there. You are right, getting lost has its magic rewards. Nicely done!