Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Phantom of the Arena

It’s cooler here in the shade of these corridors than out in the center of the Roman arena, under the blazing Andalucian sun.

I’m walking slowly.
I’m saying their names out loud.

"Antonio Dominguez"

“Jose Lopez”



I’m wondering, and so I ask “Do you hear me, Juanito?  Is this what you wanted?”

I pause, but only a distant crow replies, and really, I think he’s talking to someone else outside. What a primeval sound it is, though. I imagine those whose names I’m reading and speaking might also have heard that “caw” as they wandered and wondered here.

It’s heady stuff to imagine I could bestow immortality in this way, by the mere utterance of a name no one has spoken for perhaps centuries. But of course, I cannot. My companions here are ghosts, long gone.

"D [?] 2 April, 1934. They visited this historic place."

I’m on my way to the Sierra de Grazalema, but have decided to stop at the archaeological site of Italica, just outside Sevilla. Founded by the Roman Emperor Scipio Africanus in 206 B.C.E., it was conceived as a settlement for veterans of the second Punic wars. At the time of its construction, the amphitheater at Italica was the third largest in all the Roman empire, accommodating 25,000 spectatorsmore than three times the actual population of Italica, by some estimates. The Romans were not known for understatement. Overkill was more their thing.

It’s pretty quiet on this day in 2017. No boots on the march or clanging of swords. I have the place almost to myself, save for a few teenagers and their chaperone on a field trip.
And the ghosts of tourists past.
That’s who I’ve been calling out to; the names scratched onto the arena corridor’s walls.

I first spot them when a beam of sunlight streams through an opening onto the bricks, and a grandiose script emerges from among the shadows.
Mario wants us to know he was here, a very long time ago, as do hundreds, perhaps thousands of others.

There appear to be layers and layers of them, scratched or scrawled, then fading, and overlain with new names as the unrelenting river of decades and centuries flows by.
They are caught up in that stream of time and carried off, leaving these vain little eddies.

I’m asking myself where the line is drawn; where does the expression of human yearning cross over into vandalism. Were I to add my scrawl here, how many years would it take to be considered a statement about that yearning to be seen, to be known? Fifty years? One hundred years? A thousand?

I confess, a part of me thinks the 19th century tourist whose name I’m trying to discern is an asshole for marking this fragment of Spain’s patrimony for himself. It ain’t about you, buddy, and when I look at the achievements of the Roman empire, including this arena, your signature here can only suffer by comparison. I can picture him, Grand Tour fop with a waistcoat and walking stick, proudly assessing his handiwork. His more well-bred cousin, actually making sketches of the ruins, impresses me more.

Tabula Gladiatoria. This one isn't graffiti.
Still, it’s one of the the most human of traits, wanting to leave our mark. Caves all over the globe tell us this. In those other Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum we find the spectrum of human experience documented, scratched and scribbled onto walls: politics, commerce, religiosity, greetings, poetry, angst, love, lust, revenge.

A sampling from those famous Roman sites:
“Here love will be wise”
“Let the bears devour me”
“Myrtis gives good fellatio”
“Lasius is a pervert” [I’m guessing Myrtis wrote that one]
“Goodbye” “Good luck”
“Biggus Dickus has a . . . “ well, you know. And if the Monty Python troupe tells me it’s so, then it is.

Ok, that last one isn’t really found at Pompeii or Herculaneum. But I have to say, I do prefer the narrative graffiti to the simple names. If our 19th century dandy had told me something on that wall about his travels, his conquests or his longings, I might readily forgive him in exchange for that moment of human connection, that window into the past. I’m a history nerd, after all.

Bricks and names, turning to mold and dust, as we speak.

But then, who am I kidding.
 Ancient ruins always call to mind the knowledge that we’re only passing through this world. They always call to mind our mortality. And in the face of that knowledge, words often fail. So instead, we call up those practiced letters that offer us and the world the simplest, weakest approximation of who we are.  

I could add my name and join this throng, but I don’t. I will join them soon enough.
Just like those seemingly invincible Roman generals, I cannot overcome impermanence. I’m grateful for this reminder they’ve provided me today, even if it was unintentional.  

To say their names now is a form of sadhana. I say my own, too, not worrying that the crows might hear me.
I smile, thinking that, like drops of rain that reach the surface of the sea and become indistinguishable from one another, we will meet again and quell that ache that compels us to litter monuments with names.
These phantoms and me, we are that sea. We have always been that sea.

I exit the amphitheater past plantings of oleander, lavender and rosemary. In this heat, they cast their clouds of scent outward toward me like a net, capturing me in this moment.
“See these colors? Smell this fragrance?” they whisper like those phantoms in the corridor.

“You are alive. Be here now.”

Archaeologists at work

Roman legion stragglers near Italica

Monday, April 10, 2017

Scent of Azahar

Orange Blossom [azahar]

     It's dumb and dangerous, but for a second here, and two seconds there, I have to close my eyes as my bike speeds along narrow, winding streets on the way back to my apartment. I have to do this, because I want to focus on one sense at a time. I'm compelled to slow down not only because I don't want to crash, but because I want to savor something sweet.
     We've all heard of landscapes, and even soundscapes, but I've noticed a grand, ever shifting scentscape here in Sevilla.  The focal point, the star of that scent show is, of course, the orange blossom. I'd been seeing and hearing the word "azahar" a lot since I arrived in Spain. But the word didn't sound Spanish to me. It sounded Arabic. A friend from Lebanon confirmed my suspicion, saying it means "the flower". Makes sense, given that this is AndalucĂ­a, the former Al-Andalus. Here in Sevilla, I think that's appropriate since the orange blossom really is The Flower. The trees are ubiquitous here.

      My love affair with the orange blossom began in Napoli. They use it in desserts in southern Italy, including the Easter favorite, Pastiera. That was my first encounter. It was like tasting a fragrant garden, Paradise on the tongue and in the nose. Paneangeli sells the "fior d'arancio" in little glass vials for avid Italian bakers. I have some in my kitchen, and every now and then can't help dabbing some on my wrists and behind my ears. I also have a bottle of Al Wadi orange blossom water that I occasionally use in smoothies, but mostly just huff like a junkie. I should probably seek professional help. But I digress . . . 

      It's sneaky, this lovely little azahar. Little puffs of fragrance can surprise you almost anywhere in this city, even when you don't see a tree nearby. 

     I'm passing through one such glorious cloud when I notice the scent shifts to roasting meat . . . then frankincense outside a little church. At least, I think it's frankincense. It's the smell that used to make me think of funerals, but now, happily, will make me think of Sevilla. Then I smell a brief whiff of garbage (it's a city, and a hot one, after all), then back to something both sweet and spicy wafting out of a perfumerie, then meat again, and maybe . . . maybe. . . is that peppers and onions? I don't know, but whatever it is, it makes me want to circle this neighborhood for a few hours, if only I had the time.

      I find myself on my ride home, curious at what scent I'll pass through next. I feel open and joyful as I pedal. I have school work to do, but I don't care at this point. I slow a bit, to relish this discovery. Each surprising cloud is like a sweet caress as I pass, like a warm welcome to this corner or that intersection, like a benediction.

      There are other distractions here, as well. It must be said, I used to think that Italian men had won the genetic lottery . . . until I came to Spain. [Of course, this does not unseat my dear Italian partner, who is always first on my list--and not just because he reads my blog.] The men here, young and old and in-between, are often casually strolling around in suits, just because. I love suits (Well, OK . . . men in suits). I noticed this on ordinary days, and it made my head spin. But this is now Semana Santa, and the number of suits and ties has increased exponentially. You could be forgiven for thinking I'd suddenly found  a new religion, given how many times on Palm Sunday I said, "Jesus . . ." riding through these streets. 
      Here's hoping I'll be forgiven, too. 

       "But," you may ask, "isn't New York City just crawling with men in suits?" Yes, yes, it's true. But NYC men-in-suits all seem to carry themselves like twitching, traumatized squirrels, waiting for an eagle to swoop down from above and finish them off. I guess it's about more than the suit. It's about one's bearing. 

      The Spanish men (and women) I've seen have an ease about them. Which goes great with a suit . . . but not so great when you're in a hurry and trying to get through a crowd. I'll say this for New Yorkers, knowing it's both a blessing and a curse: they out-perform the Spaniards in terms of spatial awareness. Spaniards move slowly and seem to be aware of only what is about six inches in front of their faces--only their faces, nothing to the sides or behind them. New Yorkers, on the other hand, typically have spatial awareness extending about three blocks on all sides. It's a matter of life and death. One way or another, the city is trying to crush you.

Look at them--even without endoscopy I can see their ulcers. Not sexy. No.
Here, they're out buying Pepcid AC on their lunch break, I suspect.
These men, I promise you, are NOT Spanish. For crying out loud, guys.

     Sevilla, though, is not without its dangers, apparently. I have gradually learned this over the last few weeks, and had it confirmed after a rainy spell. The evenings had been cooler than I expected for about a week straight. I hadn't packed for this at all. Then, one day the clouds cleared out and the temperature climbed above 80 F, and I was thrilled. 
     But among the locals, there was a sense of foreboding. I expressed my glee as I looked out a classroom window and saw, at last, blue skies. A classmate who has lived here for a few years said, with utter disdain, "It's like that 300 days a year here," as if he'd had enough already.
     Others I encountered looked to the sky and I could hear "It begins," with a sigh of resignation, see a wave of dread sweep over them--kind of like the squirrelly New Yorkers looking for that swooping predator. This is because, in July and August in particular, that Sevillan sun is going to try to kill you. I'm told that the only people on the streets in the middle of the day here in summer are suffering tourists who didn't do their homework before they booked their holiday. The Sevillanos wait for the sun to go down. And even then, it's not cool outside.
      I've never encountered a people so jaded about sunshine. 
Canvas tarps suspended over a street for shade.

     But here's the thing. All the talk of the dreaded summer heat had me thinking that, though I've loved everything about this place, I couldn't actually live here. But with each passing day, each passing cloud of azahar, each park and tapas bar I visit, each smiling child and happy, relaxed family I pass on the street, even each cobblestone that rattles my brain as I ride my bike over historic streets, has me changing my mind. 

      Here, I catch myself actually breathing [crazy, I know].
      Here, I carry my shoulders where they belong [not around my ears].
      Here, I catch myself judging less and smiling more.
      Here, I think, let the sun do what it will. It will never be as harsh as the emotional and political climate of my own country.

       When a place enters your dreams, something has shifted.
       And Sevilla enters my dreams now, wrapped in a cloud of orange blossom, wearing a suit and tie, kindly dark eyes shining. It dances toward me, holding out a bowl of salmorejo in one hand, a history book in the other, sensual and enticing, and surging with life. 
       "Hey girl, I'm Sevilla. Nice to meet you."

       "Hey Sevilla," I say. "Where've you been all my life?"