“Whatever happened, I should never be able to arrive at committing suicide, for the feeling that something marvellous might yet be waiting round the corner. You never know! The opening of a door, and transcendent beauty in a new form presents itself. There is no telling when or where or how beauty and delight will manifest themselves. I could never commit suicide for fear of missing the new manifestation.” So wrote Nina after seeing the Cathedral of Seville. I feel like this too in Seville, not in the Cathedral which I did not particularly like, but simply in seeing beauty in the streets, in the windows, in the parks, in a glimpse through an open door-way into a courtyard, in the food, in the fun and the people.
Nina remembers “walking in out of the blazing sunlight and standing still, with a little pain in my heart, and a tightness in my throat, and a heavenly appreciation of being alive”. This I felt too, again not in the Cathedral, but simply being here. In Seville, I have felt that I have come home. That Seville, is where I belong. I can’t explain why I feel this but it fells like home. My first afternoon, I walked around the streets with a tightness in my throat, with joy bursting in my heart, with tears skimming the lids of my eyes and a smile that could not be taken from me. Apart from this shared feeling, Nina and I have not much in common at all. It could be that we are women of our times – of different ages – but to me Nina is old-fashioned both in her language and her thoughts. We certainly do not agree on many things – we do not agree on the Cathedral of Seville, we do not agree on how good Spanish food is, we do not agree on our politics of looking after those less fortunate. Nina considered herself middle-class and proud of it. She is relentlessly critical of the beggars, especially the begging children, of Spain. Yet when she travelled alone is Spain, the world had been suffering through the great depression. She even goes as far as to slap a begging boy in the Cathedral. She wrote, “Suddenly there came a sharp hiss and a peremptory rap on my hand, and, looking down, I found a dirty-faced little urchin of a choir-boy snapping his fingers under my nose in an impertinent demand for money. Startled, I flew straight down from my supernal dreaming to smacking the importunate hand with a leather glove, which so surprised the urchin he jumped off like a grasshopper and bothered me no morel”. All through Spain she quite often gives such a ugly description of Spanish people, but in particular of the poor. Nina, I think, believes one’s dignity is more important than food on the family table. Dignity was difficult to come by in the early 1930s for the hungry and the poor.
Nevertheless, though I do not agree with Nina on many things, I follow her. I go to places she visited to see for myself and then to argue with her the whole way home. Sometimes, I find myself agreeing with her as she gets something exactly right. Then I find myself arguing with myself, ‘well, she only got that right because that is how it is’. Nina writes about the “extravagant and empty buldings erected for the Spanish American Exhibition in Maria Luisa Park. Being empty, they lack vitality, but the tiles on the outer walls of the great semi-circular Building of Spain are worth seeing”. I visited the Plaza de Espana today. It is a vibrant show-stopping building of the most beautiful architecture. Now housing various Ministerial Offices – oh to be a Chief-of-Staff in here! As well as a military museum. The building is certainly in my top ten of buildings I have visited. Yet, how do I know that what has changed in Spain since her travels and mine? The Spanish Civil War devastated Spain. Even though decades have now passed, Spain still bears the physical and emotional scars of families against families, of neighbour pitted against neighbour, of the righteous against the virtuous, where a father would allow for his son to be shot – for the good of Spain. When I first arrived in Spain and was staying on the Spanish side of the border with Gibraltar, I noticed Spanish flags hanging from windows and verandas. I thought it was an ‘up you’ to Great Britain. Town after town I have witnessed the Spanish flags flying proudly from private homes and apartments. It is sign to Catalonia in support of a united Spain. Fresh wounds opening old wounds.
Seville is a wealthy town. The well-heeled strut the streets in their branded clothing. The height and material of the comb is still a status symbol. Obviously the Sevillanos still don’t wear the comb and the mantilla on a daily basis but they do on special religious days and weddings. There are poor here too. Beggars, not just the homeless but those with disabilities, are to be found in the centre of town outside churches and banks. There are the women who will try to give you a sprig of rosemary and then ask for money or want to tell your fortune. There are the hawkers trying to sell fake handbags, runners and sunglasses. As soon as word is heard the police are on their way, the hawkers scamper. The fabric that they put on the ground to display their wares has thin rope two pieces of rope tied to each corner. The ropes meet in the middle which allows the hawkers, to pick it up, the fabric becomes a sack with all the fake merchandise inside – and they run for it. Most times successfully to my joy. What would Nina have made – and written – of these people?
The streets of Seville are never straight – we agree on this Nina and me. Nina says “nor do they run in curves. They dart about, forming angles”. This irregularity Nina says, “only adds to Seville’s charms. As I have walked the streets in this past week, it is true. The streets here are charming as it the city itself. Nina marvelled at how Calle O’Donnell, was so narrow two people could not walk two abreast but must walk “Indian file”. I guess that means in a single line. She shouted the benefits of Sierpes, the main shopping street as “motor-cars and tram-cars are not permitted”. Now many streets in Seville are for pedestrians and bicyclists only. It is a fun city to walk around and I never get bored of walking streets. I also ponder the amount of motor cars in 1934 compared to now. What would she make of Sydney or Melbourne or even the Pacific Highway that goes through Woodburn on the north coast where she grew up? I can see it – I’m starting to see Nina as a whinger rather than someone who accepts time changes, places change, modernity changes. I am certain Nina though she was a modern woman. As I believe I am – but others would argue I am old fashioned.
Today I visited a number of Sevillian monuments that Nina visited including the Casa de Pilatos. This casa – like four others in Seville is privately owned but takes tours several times a day. The Casa de Pilatos was the third of the four I visited. I love seeing these Arabian style houses, built in Christian times, still owned by the same family. Most of the rooms are blocked from tourists and they usually charge around ten euro to visit but we get a glimpse into Sevillian nobility. I always imagine the owners peeping out at us tourists from behind drawn curtains but suspect they live in Madrid or Barcelona and merely visit during ‘the season’. Casa de Pilatos – Pilate’s house – was named after Pontius Pilate –by the son of the original owners. He had been to Jerusalem and brought back with him the observance of the Stations of the Cross. He introduced this Catholic ritual into Seville – could this be why Seville is the only city I have seen churches that depict the Stations of the Cross? According to the story, the route runs the same distance of 1,321 paces that separated the praetorium of Pontius Pilate from Calvary. Nina dislike the Casa de Pilatos. The mixture of Roman statues with an Arabic style house rubbed Nina the wrong way. She “actually disliked seeing classic sculpture set against a background of Moorish arcades and tiling”. I loved it. I even took a photo of a little tile of a donkey on it – just for Nina. Each of the three private houses I visited had Roman elements. The first two Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija and Casa de Salinas both had Roman mosaic floors dating back to the second century BC. These were literally ripped out of other places in Spain in the late 1800s early 1900s – when you could do that type of thing because you were nobility – and brought to these two casas and laid in their courtyards. Never did I expect to see as much Roman history – in private hands – as I did see here in Seville. I loved all three houses for their beauty and their history – both the Spanish/Arabic elements and the ripped out Roman ruins – ‘because we could’. I think maybe my sensibilities about history and life and hardship are more evolved than Nina’s. After all, Nina wore a hat and gloves and a stiff upper lip. I wear runners, sunnies and a laid back attitude.