Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thursday in Seville: The air soft as that of Seville in April (el aire suave como la de Sevilla en abril)

"People in Seville are a bit strange."

So confided Gabriela a week ago, when we lingered over tapas at her fashionable local haunt in Madrid. I didn't quite know how to take the remark, whether to heed it seriously or chalk it up to the usual regional prejudices.

Thus I came to Seville not knowing what to expect other than the sights for which it is known: the third largest Cathedral in Spain; the extant Moorish architecture; and the numerous buildings of historical interest. So far, I have not been able to detect the strangeness that Gabriela spoke of, other than the southern accent (often difficult to understand) and a local dialect that includes words and expressions peculiar to Andalusia. Indeed, people have been unfailing kind and exceptionally hospitable, as I have learned over the last two days of the conference.

I have attended academic conferences all over the U.S., the U.K., and Canada; never have I experienced the sort of generosity on display here. The Spanish organizers hover anxiously and work into the wee hours, caring for the needs of participants and speakers alike. I found myself embarrassed by the effusive introduction to my keynote address, and it was humbling to see the international reach of my scholarship. The talk was warmly received, and I was able to exhale after a nervous morning of anticipation.

An interesting factoid: the University of Seville is housed in the old tobacco factory that comprises the setting for Bizet's Carmen. A moat surrounds the university, originally intended to protect the tobacco from theft. Some of the administrative offices are now in former prison cells (no comment).

Even in these tough economic times, the EU still provides handsome funding by North American standards. We were taken to lunch yesterday, and every session is followed by a break for food: pastries and excellent strong Spanish coffee in the morning; dolces (little sweets) and more coffee mid-day; and tapas in the afternoon. God forbid we should go without food for more than two hours. Last night we heard a concert by a very good early music ensemble that presented a range of Spanish and English songs; tonight we will have a lavish conference dinner at a local restaurant beginning at 9.00 p.m., early for these parts.

The only aspect I have found disappointing over the last two days is the quality of some of the papers. If nothing else, this experience has reinforced my appreciation for the American university system: as much as we grouse about the excesses, we do provide an exceptional education. Quite simply, we demand a kind of intellectual engagement and depth that is unparalleled. My uncle just forwarded a piece from the BBC with the latest rankings of universities in the world: all of the top ten are in the U.S., as are most of the one hundred on the list. I see why.

By 2.00 p.m., I was done, having sat through sessions since 9.30. I walked over to the Puerto de Jerez, just a block from the university, to meet Matilde Romero, the mother of Blanca Ramos, the minister of culture in Madrid. Through Gabriela's generosity, I had introductions to both women: Matilde is her aunt, and Blanca is her cousin. Blanca arranged for me to meet her mother, the scion of an ancient Spanish family with deep ties to nobility going back to the fifteenth century. I was nervous about the meeting. Señora Romero does not speak English, and I was embarrassed about the sad state of my Spanish. Surprisingly, we managed very well. Regal and enormously self-possessed, she displayed exquisite Spanish manners. Being from an ancient family, she spoke a pure, clearly enunciated Castilian, and my ear adjusted quickly. I understood nearly everything, and after a bit of sherry, I relaxed and remembered more verb forms and vocabulary. I'm sure to Señora Romero's refined ear, my Spanish was shocking, but she gently corrected me and, when necessary, supplied vocabulary.

Señora Romero loves Seville dearly, and we walked for an hour in the historic area around the university as she lectured with pride on the buildings and the history. We then stopped at one of those fabulous little tapas bars secreted away in an alley, the sort of place only locals know about, and we had delicious dry sherry as an appertivo, followed by two tapas, a tortilla of eggs and potato, and open-faced sandwiches with a tomato spread, topped by the excellent local tuna (atun). We resumed our stroll and then stopped for coffee and a shared dolce, a slice of chocolate cake that I liked very much but which Señora Romero dismissed as ordinario. We said our good-byes at 4.30, me thanking her effusively before returning to the hotel for a rest before the conference dinner tonight.

I feel extraordinarily fortunate having met someone from a distinguished old family, the sort of Sevillians who normally do not consort with outsiders. And for this, I have Gabriela to thank--even if she does think people in Seville are a bit "strange."

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