I first saw Seville on a sun-baked August afternoon spent hauling suitcases and a hefty backpack over cobbled stones. Orange trees lined a narrow street where I weaved past old men walking abreast, sidestepping horse droppings left by carriages that traverse the city. I'd hoped to acquire a decent map to guide me to my hostel, but the tourist office was closed for siesta. As evening approached, I walked, address in hand, past streets that lacked signs and whitewashed, yellow-trimmed buildings that lacked numbers. Finally I stopped to rest at a tapas bar where a waiter took 10 minutes to fetch me a beer.
The city seemed... perfect.
In the summertime, Sevillanos eschew El Centro's broad plazas, the tiled courtyards of La Macarena and barrio Santa Cruz's labyrinthine alleys for the Guadalquivir river's breezy banks. Folks who can't afford air-conditioned apartments and refuse to wear shorts congregate to eat, to drink and just to be. Of the many bars and restaurants, my fellow study abroad students tended to favor establishments on Calle Betis, a picturesque lane that parallels the river. How many nights we joined young Sevillanos there, buying fifths of alcohol packaged with ice, cups and Fanta to drink on the long concrete bench that left our backs to the river.
That autumn semester in Seville gave me many fond memories: the season's final bullfights, La Carbonaria's nightly flamenco shows, dining amid dangling legs of cured ham and learning the meaning of madrugada--"the wee hours of the morning"--while returning home after sunrise, a churro in hand, whistling whatever Spanish pop song played last at the discothèque. We study-abroad students arrived apprehensive, wondering what to expect from our host families, our Spanish classes, our expatriate life. We enjoyed the challenge of linguistic immersion and the ease of everything else. We drank copious amounts of tinto de verano, danced many nights past dawn, liked or hated Spanish food depending on our host families, and sooner or later came to love Sevilla, feeling we'd earned the right to call it that, until it felt foreign to call it anything else.
Semesters abroad are fleeting. Its participants depart with sadness, affection for their adopted city, and a sincere intention to one day return. Once repatriated, we annoy friends and family by speaking in our second tongue and retelling small cultural differences. Slowly that fades; we reinvest ourselves in college; we graduate, find jobs, embark on careers, get promotions, marry--or at least begin to attend the weddings of friends. I took a postgraduate job as a newspaper reporter, immersing myself in the politics, urban affairs, and culture of greater Los Angeles. Occasionally I'd get in touch with classmates from my semester abroad. We'd talk wistfully about Seville, though as months turned into years, I began to realize that a majority of us wouldn't ever return.
But I went back.
I saved up money, quit that newspaper job, and plotted another six months in the city. Still, on the express train that connects Madrid to Sevilla, I marveled that I'd finally returned. As it sped south, I relived four years of nostalgia for my favorite city, craving its sights, its food, its feel. I'd spend the spring inside its borders, nights spent in short sleeves under Spanish palm trees sipping 1 Euro beers.
As the station drew near, misgivings began nagging at me. How would Sevilla be without Mike, Ana, Lauren, Vanessa, and Morgan, the people whose presence during my semester abroad couldn't be separated from my experience the city? How would it be to live there again, to rent an apartment after months skipping from city to city every few days?
Train stations and most neighborhoods around them are uglier than whatever city they serve. Outside Santa Justa, having finally returned, the city seemed ordinary. "Never come back here," a study abroad advisor once told us. Was she right? In the ensuing moments, my cab pulled from the station, drove a half-dozen blocks and emerged on Menendez Pelayo, where the city I remembered begins. How could I have doubted?
In the spring, Sevilla blooms anew, its public gardens alive with roses, geraniums and bougainvilleas, its nightlife emerging from the brief wintertime chill that prevents Sevillanos from congregating outside in their usual fashion. Easter Week brings the famous Semana Santa processions: Catholics clad in robes and hoods carrying candles, crucifixes or statues of Jesus and Mary through the city's narrow streets and winding alleys. Soon after Sevillanos celebrate Feria de Abril, an annual fiesta enjoyed in flamenco dresses and traditional Spanish suits. Under pastel-colored lights, they pack into casetas set up side-by-side at the fairgrounds to eat tapas, drink manzanilla and dance Sevillanos.
My most memorable days passed when the city could be itself. My first day back I'd taken an apartment near the Alameda, in a neighborhood where quaint plazas and lively tapas bars are untouched by the tourists who keep to the city's royal gardens and Gothic cathedral. My five flat mates were students from France, both regions of Belgium, Germany and Italy. We grew into fast friends speaking Spanish, our common language, and living the city as best we could. Every day I wandered for hours, content to watch school children playing pelota against a wall, shop-keeps drawing down metal shutters during midday siesta, or scooters speeding through Calle Alfalfa, drivers intent on showing off for the scores of Spanish and international students who gather each night outside Bare Nostrum, Cabo Loco Bar and a bar without a sign that sells giant cups of Cruzcampo beer.
As I ate up the city, fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast, gazpacho or spinach with garbanzo beans or a tortilla Española in early afternoon, I remembered how lovely it is to enjoy each meal, spending an hour or more on a leisurely lunch, or sipping red wine with a late dinner. On the streets, I remembered how fine it felt to get from place to place putting one foot in front of the other, able to enjoy details that can be appreciated at four though not 54 miles per hour.
Ernest Hemingway called Paris "a movable feast," noting that those lucky enough to live there while young will be able to take something of it with them forever. I've lived twice in Paris and twice in Sevilla. The latter is my movable fiesta, though after my first visit I left too much behind.
Its been five years since my second trip ended, time I've spent working in the world of American politics, policy and culture. Everything I write is made possible in part by the education I got as an undergraduate at Pomona College, and my graduate school years at NYU. Reflecting on my visits to Sevilla, however, I'm persuaded that together they comprise the most important year of my education to date. It is a place where thoughtful visitors are taught that cultivating enjoyment for everyday pleasures has a lot to do with living life right -- and until it's time for my next visit, that insight will help keep me happy wherever I am.