Cathedrals, Mosques, Synagogues, oh my! (Part 2)

The last time I was in Seville, around 1986, I was visiting the Alcázar.  Among us, 5 high school students and two chaperones.  We plucky teenagers pranced around with our daypacks, stuffed with caribeeners, compasses, flashlights, dry matches and a copy of “501 Spanish Verbs” (from Barron’s Educational Series) – what do you expect from an outdoorsy curriculum?

Pretty sure we all came packing Swiss Army knives, too, as you could travel with them back then.  (Note that Victorinox lost ~40% of their business after 9/11 – they used to be a featured item in Duty Free airport shops – but they didn’t fire a single employee: fun read if you want to look it up.)  We also had a change of clothes as we were on an overnighter.

In the Plaza de España, Mr. Gaul offered to sit and watch our bags as we traipsed about the cobblestone streets, past cafés with hanging legs of drying jamón, steaming cups of café con leche, and decorative Moorish tiles.  When I walked into the plaza a couple hours later, I saw Mr. Gaul bent over the edge of the fountain.  A large map splayed out before him, he was examining it while an unfamiliar man in a ratty white linen shirt gesticulated, pointing and asking questions.

I couldn’t understand what the man was saying.  It didn’t sound like Spanish.  It might have been Arabic, but I couldn’t distinguish those sounds well at that age.  To this day, I’m not sure what he was speaking, though I’m rather confident it was complete gibberish.

The man made eye contact with me, and in a flustered huff like a suddenly shamed rooster, he scooped all edges of the crinkley paper map into his arms, waved at Mr. Gaul as if to say, “So sorry for the trouble, thanks for trying to help,” spluttered out some more nonsense words, and beat a hasty retreat into the crowds of the city.

“Who was that?” I started to ask, as Mr. Gaul turned around, looking at me while taking his seat.  His head swiveled this way and that.  “Oh crap,” he said, eyes shifting and arms spreading wide.  “One of our bags is gone.”

Sevilla para herir.

Córdoba para morir.

¡Siempre Sevilla para herir!

– Francisco Lorca

A crossroads city where the Tartessians, Cathaginians, Iberians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors set roots.  Where Jews, Muslims, Christians settled.  Where Christopher Colombus embarked (along with Amerigo Vespucci, and de Gama, and Cortéz, …).  Where a monopoly was granted for “trade” with the Americas.  Where the gitanos danced and wooed and… yes, a few shucksters aspired to perfecting the art of the grift.

Such a rich confluence, this city that periodically washed away in the alluvial soil on the banks of the Guadalquivir, also experienced dramatic intermixing of culture, thought, religion, practice, music, architecture, plagues, iconoclasm, iconography… I can’t help put try to peer through the layers of interwoven blending.

Pagan sites became churches, churches became mosques, mosques became repositories of Hebraic knowledge, then became churches again, then became institutions of state government, then became trading houses, then became gardens, became tourist attractions, became graffitied, sighed and lamented and rejoiced all together.

This city founded a Universidad de Mareantes (of the Mariners) around 1500 with faculty teaching piloting, sailing, cosmography, mathematics, astronomy, artillery tactics, military history, navigation, cartography.  These three pictures are details from a massive tapestry hanging in the Alcázar (roughly 40 feet by 25 feet) with the Mediterranean sea at the top and the Atlantic to the east.  Zooming in reveals lots of interesting tidbits.  It may be representative of the jealously guarded Padrón Real.

My favorite place – probably the old Moorish baths underneath the palace:




Borders, Barriers, Walls: Identity

To the Phoenecians and the Romans, the Straits of Hercules marked the boundary of the known world.  Not so much for the Basque fishermen who had already sailed up the coast of Portugal, around the British Isles, through the Faroes, past Iceland, and (possibly) into Greenland and Newfoundland.  Nor for the plucky North Africans who sailed across to the Canary Islands and perpetuated there until some Spaniards discovered them in a neolithic-like existence in the 15th Century.

Mons calpe (the Phoenecian name for the 1,400 foot high limestone promontory) is the northern pillar, and Mons abyle (or Jebel Musa) is the southern.  About 8 miles of water separates them.

Jabal Ṭāriq (جبل طارق) (“The Mountain of Tariq”), when españiol-ized, then Anglicized, becomes Gibraltar.

When the Hapsburg dynasty was in its death throes, succession battles flared across the Old Country (as you might expect).  A Dutch-Anglo army went for the rock, and took it for the Queen in the early 18th C.  Leveraging the Spanish War of Succession (1702-15), Gibraltar was granted to the UK “in perpetuity.”

The myth remains that if ever the macaques leave Gibraltar, then so will the British.  Winston Churchill during WWII imported a mass of them from Morocco when their population dwindled to a few inbred mangy curs.

Alfred Lord Tennyson spun a poem in blank verse, widely considered a dramatic soliloquoy in the vein of Robert Barrett Browning, called “Ulysses.”  In this speculative fantasy, Ulysses has returned from his wayward voyages and gotten – as you might expect – bored.

So he rouses his men to action, proposing they sail beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, into the great unknown.  A final venture.  A last plunge.

I expect neither Tennyson nor Ulysses would have ever expected over 50 miles of tunnels to have been bored through that limestone promontory.  Never expected a massive data center and a server farm and three hospitals and a power station and a conert hall to be housed within.  Probably never even realized this is the last stand of the Neanderthals.

Regardless, the establishment of a border, of a boundary, or an end, a red line, a last straw… the act invites an investigation into the rationale behind the decision.  Often, the act is proven to be not rational at all, but highly emotional.

When we delineate the other (this is Spain, this is the UK; this is the known world, this is the unknown; this is Africa, this is Europe; these are Catholics, these are Protestants; these are Moors, these are Christians; these are Neanderthals, these are homo sapiens), we’re really defining ourselves.  Without an other, we wouldn’t know who we are.

It is a very egotistical act, usually born of fear.  Also dangerously galvanizing.  For ever cross the walls.  That’s the only way to make sure you don’t trap yourself in someone else’s definition of you.  Though the more intransigent are the walls you build yourself.  Always seek to broach those: better yourself.  Better to find yourself.  Better to be with your fear.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

Transition, Transmission: Maw Maw

“She has transitioned.”  

My arms still slick from transmission fluid.  She just turned 102.


(“That don’t look like me,” she says.)

It turns out that when the engines were installed, a pressure relief valve had been added to the starboard engine, but had been forgotten on the port side.  In the Storstrøm on the way into Stubbekøbing, blowing out the engines in turn, the port began slipping away.  Energy (cognition) high, but percent load dropped precipitously (blood pressure).  Fuel consumption almost to zero.  David Bowie in my head.  (“Oh my TVC one five…”)

Over the last three years, pressure finally popped a seal and we had about 4 liters of transmission fluid in the middle bilge.  Pumped, stationary, in a Rødvig marina.  Then we got the message above.

Hopped trains to Copenhagen, flight to Frankfurt, Airbus to Orlando, will be driving to West Virginia.

I like to remember her laughing.  She enjoys a good laugh.  She’s a fan of differential humor, especially when one of three parties is not in the know.  I suppose that means, in practical Maw Maw terms: if you’re dumb, she’ll laugh at you.  And she takes her ribbing in stride, too.

Coconut Cream Pies = the guilty pleasure she spoiled me with.  When I was about 11 or 12, she baked one.  I came home, found it in the kitchen, and ran with it up the stairs.  Because what 12-year old doesn’t run upstairs with a pie?  Upstairs is where the sewing room was.  That’s where mom and maw maw liked to sit.  I wanted to thank her with my enthusiasm hot in my heart and in my hands.  I tripped, and spilled it all over the stairs.  My thought was, “I’m in trouble now.”  She stepped outside into the hallway, and laughed at me.  A deep and resonant belly laugh.  Then she came downstairs and baked me another one.

Tough.  Resilient.  Last fall we feared she suffered a heart attack.  Wheeled into the ICU, and an option was to cut open her 101 chest.  No, make her comfortable.  She woke up in an unfamiliar room, and said, “I’m going to need a bigger TV.  West Virginia has a bowl game soon, and I need to be able to see it.”

A tangible tautness always floats between maw maw, mother and my sister.  A practical woman, she has little use for or skill in subtlety or innuendo.  If you hate someone’s hair, you should tell them.  No woman escaped her free advice.  Her kids, grandkids, in-laws, friends, caretakers, random people.  At the kitchen table one morning, mom left in a huff over some piece of unsolicited wisdom.  Under her breath, but loud enough for me to hear, maw maw said, “That woman has more money than she has brains. 

“What?” I said, teenage shock.

“She has more money than she has brains.”  Sis and I laughed, and dared her to say it again.  She called mom over, and said, “You have more money than you have brains.”  Then she looked at us and laughed.

I saved this one for her.  A bit of her own strategic diction.  Sitting at her table, she dispensed her thoughts (read: you should be doing…) to me.  I slammed my mug on the table and pointed at her.  “That’s it, Maw Maw.  You’re out of my will.”  She laughed long and loud at that one.

“This getting old business is for the birds,” she says.  She went to lie down on her bed.  I followed and lay down on the bed beside her.  A woman of decorum, she knew I intentionally transgressed to get her goat.  She looked at me and laughed.  Then she’d close her eyes for a minute.  Then open them again, and laugh again.  Then close, and settle into her pillow.  That’s how I like to think of her transitioning: laughing at me.  Laughing because I made her laugh, the transmission between us in the breath and in the belly as she goes to sleep.

Maw Maw never understood me.  I don’t fit into her practical boxes.  “Are you making any money?”  “Why do you write poetry, what use is that?”  ” Why don’t you get a girlfriend?”  “You’re just playing.”

But she loves me as only maw maw can.  As she loves us all.  Unconditionally.