"Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels he belongs."
Okay, so I'm not a man--but W. Somerset Maugham's words reflect the way I felt when I first arrived as an exchange student in Seville, Spain more than 25 years ago.
I lived in the oldest part of the city, staying with two forty-something sisters named Ana and Paqui who shared an apartment with their aunt, a retired nun named Antonia who seemed to be in her early eighties. She was a permanent fixture in her room. She never went outside as far as I knew, but remained perched in her chair, wearing a black skirt, stockings, black shoes, and a black shawl draped over her dark blouse. I loved Antonia’s warm and welcoming ways. She wanted to know what was going on in the outside world. She talked about Maradona, the famous Argentinean soccer player who was now playing in Spain. She wondered what was going on in and around Sevilla, the only city she’d ever known. “¿Hace frio en la calle?” she asked. No, it wasn’t cold outside—although sometimes the lack of central heating and cold ceramic tiles made it easy to see why Antonia thought it might be. Ana and Paqui spoke to her in a dismissive tone. This was a simple and ordinary world, but it held no expectations or claims on me, and therefore what bothered these women at close quarters had no effect on me. I felt only sheer liberation, as if a thousand tiny ropes had released me, and I could stop fretting. I could simply be. “No hace frio! You always ask that!” Ana always answered.
I wasn’t sure Antonia noticed their impatience; she seemed content with the life God had given her and told me her only regret was not meeting El Papa, The Pope. Ana and Paqui didn’t work, except to care for Antonia and take in college students like me into their tiny apartment of no more than seven hundred square feet. I shared a room with another American student from Ohio, and a third Spanish student rented the second bedroom. They converted the small TV/dining room into Antonia’s bedroom every night, and Ana and Paqui slept in a roll-away bed in the living room.
Neither Ana nor Paqui left any doubt that they were Franco supporters. Franco had given them jobs. Franco held parties at the river. Franco kept the smut off of television and recognized the importance of Family and The Church. They made themselves understood with added hand gestures and asked a lot questions. A few days after my arrival, Ana followed me into my room. I’d made a trip to Él Corte Ingles, a department store that far exceeded anything we had in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio in its size, and in the quality and diversity of its merchandise. She grabbed the two shirts I had purchased and asked me if they were expensive. Then came questions about a boyfriend and the size of my parents’ house. I pictured Ana and Paqui drinking coffee with neighbors, telling them about the new American, relishing any juicy tidbits that might make it all interesting and worthwhile.
At lunch, we always ate with the television on. TV newscasts weirdly juxtaposed images of the dead from wars in Africa and nearly bare women on game shows. Antonia averted her eyes from the death and decadence. I wondered if her eyesight allowed her to notice that Ana and Paqui served her and the students chicken necks, thighs, and wings, saving the breasts for themselves. I pushed the garbanzo beans around my plate and asked for more bread, but I wasn’t tempted to binge, and therefore didn’t need to purge. We sat at a round table in the same room that was used as Antonia’s bedroom. Beneath the table, a space heater’s hot air stayed trapped under the long tablecloth, keeping our feet warm.
For dessert, Ana served us each an apple perched on a white plate with a dinner knife. What was too uncool for my friends at home—namely hanging out with old women and hearing about the world from their point of view, became something different in Spain. Old ladies and all, I was having more than a vacation from my problems—I was having an adventure. Minutes later, I headed down five flights of stairs, onto the street and down to the corner in Sevilla’s oldest neighborhood for a cup of strong café con leche, and then up to the Plaza de Cuba where the feeling of freedom reminded me of the days when I was a kid in Ohio. I snapped a photo of the Guadalquivir River. Its still waters and Old World serenity reminded me of a Truman Seymour watercolor with flashes of Bartolome Murillo’s vibrancy. Diego Velasquez, another of the Spanish masters, grew up along its waters, and Columbus returned here from the New World with treasures counted in the Torre del Oro, a twelve-sided stone tower I was approaching on the opposite side of the bridge. How my dad would love to be crossing this bridge with me and experiencing the places we’d read about.
On the other side of the river, I headed downtown toward the Cathedral, a huge Gothic structure built after the reconquest of the 1400s. Pictures of it and its bell tower, the famous La Giralda, hadn’t captured the beauty of intricate frescos, carvings, and arches that weathered hundreds of years. The architects had boldly proclaimed that they wanted to build a cathedral so immense, that people would say they were crazy when they saw it. I indeed had to stop, stare, and snap more pictures. On its opposite side lay the Barrio de Santa Cruz, home to the Jewish community before the Inquisition. I shuddered despite the warmth of the day. Had my ancestors walked these streets? I imagined the millions of people who had passed at this intersection of so many cultures and religions. I squinted against the bright sun at a white plaque with black letters near the top of La Giralda. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower, and them that run to it are safe.” I had to think for a moment, but then realized it was from Proverbs 18. The thought comforted me so much, I teared up. I went inside to thank God for bringing me to Spain. Enormous columns dwarfed me, and stained glass windows filtered the light through prismatic color. It was glorious, though I couldn’t help but wonder if the altars of gold and alabaster bring people closer to God or entrench the power of the Church? I remembered to look for the Gothic retablo of forty-five carved scenes from the life of Christ, part of the largest and richest altarpiece in the world and one of the finest examples of Gothic woodcarving anywhere. Being surrounded by all of the glorious art treasures sent my spirit soaring and reminded me of the days when Dad and I sat at the kitchen table, with dreams of seeing the work of The Masters.
I was flooded with a sense of gratitude and good feelings for the world and all it had to offer.I vowed to return to the cathedral when I had more time, but I also wanted to savor the good weather. Along with hundreds of turistas and Sunday-dressed families with small children, I reached El Parque de Maria Luisa, centrally located and shaded by tall knotted trees and the beautiful architecture of the Plaza de Espaňa. The Guardia Civil loomed, leftovers from the Franco regime. Their machine guns, slung across their bellies, looked a little silly with their shiny hats that reminded me of Mickey Mouse ears. They made me nervous, so I kept walking.I trekked along by the main campus of the University of Sevilla, hundreds of years old; it had once been the tobacco factory that was the setting for Bizet’s Carmen. A legless old man begged on the street corner outside a shop that sold orthopedic prostheses, not an uncommon sight with thousands still living who had been maimed from the civil war and its aftermath. A four- or five-year-old, brown-skinned Gypsy girl ran up to me with a carnation, promising me a blessing in return for a few pesetas. I dug into my pocket and pulled out cinco duros and told her to keep the flower. Old men played dominoes at a café, two little boys kicked a soccer ball on the sidewalk. A teenage couple held hands and laughed, and middle-aged people whizzed by on mopeds.
I marveled at it all, listening to the music of my Walkman playing in the background. Hoping to find flamenco music, I turned the dial, and a British news broadcast mentioned Karen Carpenter. I stopped, adjusted the headphones, and turned up the volume. Anorexia had killed Karen Carpenter? I couldn’t believe it. My heart raced, and I pictured my Ohio-friend, Molly's horribly thin hands. She had been doing much better when I left, and I was here in Sevilla, living a healthier lifestyle. Thank God. I was taking it one day at a time, with my own eating disorder, so far succeeding in keeping my promise to myself not to throw up in someone else’s home.
Karen Carpenter’s death stuck in my mind as I hurried to Avenida Constitución to meet several American students and friends at El Coliseo, a tourist spot near the cathedral. “Did you hear Karen Carpenter just died?” I said to Teri, a girl my Spanish friends thought looked like Bette Midler. I told them the news, and they agreed it was sad, but it didn’t stop their celebration. It set me apart a bit, and I became the observer of loud Americans.We ordered drinks, and I followed Teri to a booth where we joined four others from our group. They were noisy and sometimes funny, but I kept looking over my shoulder to see who was watching us and noticed that other patrons were staring because our group was so loud. Someone mentioned the waiter’s gnarly teeth, and they all laughed. I cringed, hoping the man didn’t speak English.
Flirting with David from Seattle, Teri stood up quickly as her friend Nina pushed her arm. I watched in horror as Teri’s nearly full glass of cold beer spewed onto a young woman seated behind us, who screamed as it hit her in the face and splashed onto her shirt. My drunk friends thought it was funny, but at least Teri apologized. This wasn’t what I’d come for, but I didn’t want to return to my old ladies either. Many cervezas later, we walked across town to a disco in Los Remedios that was hopping. We stayed for a few hours and then went on to a second club where we ordered still more drinks. A twenty-something Spaniard approached our group. His handsome features and dark hair attracted me, as did his attire: pressed jeans, a crisp white shirt, and a light blue sweater draped over his shoulders. He introduced himself to me as Juan Antonio. “¿Donde vives en Sevilla?”“I live in La Triana,” I told him in Spanish. I’d had enough to drink that I failed to remember that I had a boyfriend. “Really? That’s where I am from.” He leaned in.I didn’t pull back. “Well, it’s great. I love it.”
Juan Antonio and I continued to talk at the bar, and then he grabbed my hand and led me to the dance floor. Fortunately, I had the sense not to go home with him that night, but I was wide awake when I returned to my tiny shared room, hugging myself in the darkness, intoxicated in more ways than one. I suppose I could get all technical and say that I was projecting all my romantic archetypes onto this sojourn, but it felt like the magic of Spain pulsed in my blood. The disco had played modern music, but the sound of flamenco guitars were never far away. They made my heart pound with the flash of a fantasy—me, ME raising my arms over my head, castanets insistent, drawing a Juan Antonio closer to me. Even though I knew this image was pure toro shit, some deep part of me believed it was possible and tingled with anticipation.
“Don’t expect Spaniards to invite you to their homes,” more than one of our professors warned. Under the rule of Franco, people hadn’t been allowed to congregate. Though he’d been dead for nearly eight years, the pervasive fear and suspicion still gripped people. Many were very leery of strangers. Despite this, my teammate Pilar invited me to her house not long after we met. I was thrilled since Pilar was definitely my favorite teammate. On one hand, she was so proper and polite. She spoke Spanish with a true castellano accent, pronouncing for example, the letter z with a “th” sound. Yet, out of nowhere, she would say something dizzyingly funny that would throw me off guard and onto the floor with laughter. She picked me up on her red moped, and we zipped through traffic to her apartment home near the Maria Luisa Park. When we reached her apartment, she laughed at the way my hair was sticking up. And I laughed too when I looked in the mirror. After my unsuccessful attempt to fix my hair, she introduced me to her parents and seven siblings. I thought they were as charming and well mannered as any people I had ever met. It was clear, though, that one of her sisters was sick. She was laying on the couch and looked like someone who’d recently been released from a concentration camp.“Can I get you something to drink? Una cerveza?” asked Pilar.“Sure, gracias.” We had our own version of Spanglish.
Most of the time, I ended up speaking in English with her and she spoke in Spanish to me, but sometimes we mixed it up.We walked to the kitchen, and she pulled two bottles of Cruzcampo and some cheese out of the fridge and arranged it on a tray, adding olives and bread sticks named picos.“Mi hermana, Alicia,” she said, pouring beer into my glass. “She has something called bulimia. Sabes lo que es?” My stomach did a flip. I peeked around the corner for another glimpse at Alicia. “Do I know what it is? Unfortunately, I do. I’ve had it.”“Verdad? You have?” She put down her glass and awaited an explanation.“Yeah, but I’m okay now,” I said, eating a pico and some cheese, hoping with all my heart I was telling the truth. She’d knocked my theory out of the ballpark. I could no longer claim that bulimia was an American phenomenon brought on solely by the sickness of our culture’s obsession with lithe beauty and fast food. Alicia had never been to the United States.
When I’d first arrived in Spain, I congratulated myself one day at a time for breaking my addiction to high-calorie food and the need to purge. About three weeks after first meeting Pilar’s sister, I happened to wake up at midnight, slightly hungry. I couldn’t possibly wake the sisters and Antonia to raid their kitchen. I sipped water instead and realized I hadn’t even thought about binging. Was I finally cured?
That evening, as always, Antonia greeted me with, “Hace frio en la calle?” No, it wasn’t cold outside. What’s the word for blanket? “Um … Quieres una … manta? Yes, that’s it. Manta?” Antonia shook her head. With my knowledge of Spanish in its infancy, I couldn’t understand all that she said, but she immediately began telling me stories of wonder and faith. She wanted someone to listen to the ways God had been good to her. Did I know He was watching out for all of us? Yes, I told her, I did. I wished I could have asked her if her faith had ever faltered, like mine, but it seemed too much like prying. Antonia told me how proud her parents had been when she first told them she planned to become a nun. I stared at the deeply embedded lines on her face, unable to imagine her without them. She was short, no more than five feet tall. Antonia had been in the prime of her life during the Spanish Civil War, but she never mentioned it. Her voice, raspy and weak, sounded as if her heart didn’t quite have the pumping power to oxygenate her breath. I pulled my chair in close and listened while she told me how she cried when she left her mother and sisters for the convent. Brushing away a tear, she asked me about my family. I told her that I loved them and missed them, but I would see them soon.
For the moment, I was grateful to be in Spain.“Eres guapa” she said, telling me I was good-looking. “In the days of my youth ….” She stopped and took in a breath, put her palm to her forehead, and ran her fingers over the beads of her rosary. What was she whispering? A prayer or something else? Was that fear on her face? She looked into my eyes. “Where is she? Where’s Ana?” Was she sick? Her heart, maybe. “Estás bien? El corazón?” She didn’t answer, so I quickly I stood up and nearly ran the short distance to the kitchen for Ana. Antonia asks for you. She must have heard the worry in my voice. Ana exhaled loudly and untied her blue and white apron and threw it down on the kitchen counter. I followed her to Antonia’s room, the same one that doubled as the dining and TV room. Antonia sat whispering with her rosary.“¿Que quieres, Tía?” Ana demanded to know what she wanted.The fear was gone from Antonia’s face, but Ana’s tone startled her, like she’d just woken up. “¿Hace frio en la calle?” “You asked me to come in here to tell you whether it’s cold outside?! Por Dios, Tia!”
Antonia looked at me, confused, while Ana continued to berate her.“No hace frio! Don’t bother me with that anymore! Just hold on a minute and I will bring you something to drink.” Ana stormed out, shooting me a CanYouBelieveThisCrap? look.I sat down next to her. “Antonia, can I get you anything?”She looked at me with glimmering eyes, hopeful and child-like. “¿Hace frio en la calle?”Antonia was mostly lucid and even asked me about Sevilla’s major event, similar to the Oktoberfest, except in spring: the Feria de Abril—a dizzying, weeklong festival marking the beginning of bullfight season, with horseshows featuring the proud Andalusians along with their riders in full regalia, and twenty-four hours of music, food, flamenco dancing, and partying. I told her an American friend named Paul invited some of us to join his Spanish friends at their caseta. This was especially exciting to me because most visitors to Seville were limited to the public tents and didn’t have access to the thousands of private, green and white striped casetas set up on the fairground—each its own party room with bands, food, and a sense of privilege. Antonia told me to be good. She was no doubt surprised I wasn’t already raped and disgraced for running around without a chaperon. Different every year, the fair’s main gateway formed an ornate tower of some 22,000 lights. Public casetas sold food and offered exhibits and music, but the private ones enchanted me with their elaborate home-like decor. Framed art graced the fabric walls—so typical of the way Sevillanos included art in everything they did. No celebration was complete without art. The aroma of food tantalized me. When we found the right caseta, I the ogled the buffet of paella, jamon (the famous Spanish equivalent of prosciutto), gambas (shrimp you peeled), Spanish tortillas like omelets with potatoes, hard chorizos, olives, picos, cheeses, and an ensaladilla Rusa (Russian potato salad).Though my friend Paul was of Korean ancestry, the Spanish students called him “Pablo.” He introduced me to a handsome Spaniard named Manolo and his sister, Rosario. “Friends call me Magui.” (It sounded like Mow–wee). Magui was no more than five feet, four inches, but extremely handsome with an air of confidence and fun. I liked the way he patted Paul on the back, laughed easily, and struck a flamenco dance pose when the band played a note for the next song. His sister, Rosario, was beautiful with black hair, olive skin, and deep brown eyes. Their friend Maria Luisa introduced herself, seeming particular happy to meet me, and began to rattle off all of her favorite American singers. She too was striking, with light brown hair and green eyes. Magui took Rosario’s hand and led her to the dance floor. Paul did the same with Maria Luisa. After that night, I never called my friend Paul anymore. He had become Pablo. Everyone marveled that a Korean-American could dance so well to the Sevillanas. The dancers held a proud stance, chests forward, chins up, arms gracefully reaching for forbidden fruit. They stamped on the wooden floor, clapping to the beat, castanets clicking. All the dancers conveyed desire, a nearly orgasmic look on their faces, clearly confident and comfortable in their own sexuality. Their movements mesmerized and moved me. I was proud and jealous at the same time, wishing I could live with such a connection to history, tradition, and art. Even middle-aged and older people danced with a sense of pride and passion that I had never before witnessed.As the night went on, they coaxed me to try dancing a Sevillana. The experience didn’t enact my fantasy, and there was no Juan Antonio to inspire me. I was terrible at it, but they appreciated the attempt. We hung out all night, traveling from caseta to caseta, drinking beer or Tío Pepe—Jerez sherry—dancing, eating, and laughing. It just felt right.At 2:00 A.M., two half-American sisters, Chickie and Dolores, joined us, and we all walked over to Dianca, one of the many discos in Los Remedios. Magui ran ahead and leapt into the air to tag an awning high above his head. Rosario nearly fell to the pavement in laughter when I passed it and nonchalantly touched it without leaving the flats of my feet. Point taken, Magui roared when Rosario recounted how funny it had looked. Weeks later, Chickie said, “Too bad there isn’t a pill that will make him taller or you shorter.” I agreed, but pushed that thought out of my mind, remembering Jack was home waiting for me.That same night, while the rest of our group danced to “Billie Jean,” Magui and I went to the bar and ordered drinks. He asked me where I was from and what it was like. I told him and tried to explain. Then he asked about my family and I asked about his. We had our own little intercambio. Magui stirred the ice in his drink and then stopped.“Do you believe in God?” he asked, turning thoughtful.I realized at that moment that being in Spain, spending time with people who seemed like God’s provision for me and seeing people like Antonia with such devout faith, had smoothed a jagged edge somewhere inside me. The pure flow of connection and warmth I felt there, the sense of fulfillment that ended my food addiction empowered me. It was almost as if my strength had returned without my noticing when I read the inscription on the tower, La Giralda, that first day. Everything since had allowed an intimate connection to the Creator to quietly return. I felt safe and close to the God that had helped my dad return to normal life. It’s difficult to explain faith, but I tried.Magui listened, but his experiences had been quite different. “Mostly I just remember the nuns making us feel guilty and that some of the priests were pedophiles,” he said bitterly.“Really?”“Yes, and I remember when I was about six, the nun at my school told me that if I didn’t work hard and color my picture with great care, God was going to send me to hell.”We discussed the irony of it all—the way the biggest obstacles to faith could often be the individuals and institutions who proclaimed their dedication to God but didn’t show His love. The Jesus I knew, I told him, must weep over the way we humans botch things up in His name. DURING MY TIME IN SPAIN, I felt almost as confident as I had in my Super Susan days, regaining my footing, my joy. Spring had summoned orange and pomegranate blossoms, and swathes of red and purple bougainvillea. Maria Luisa, the fun-loving and friendly girl I met at the feria, invited me to her house on Calle Monte Olivete in the barrio of San Pablo where biblical names graced the neighborhood streets: Sinai, Gólgota, Monte Olivete. Rosario’s house was named La Trinidad and was also situated on Monte Olivete. I liked to think this was God winking at me and letting me know these people were His provision for me. Maria Luisa’s mother, Loli, welcomed me and offered Spanish tortillas and a glass of cold Cruzcampo beer. I laughed aloud at her father’s jokes in Andalusian Spanish I could barely understand. Maria Luisa spent hours trying to teach me the steps of the Sevillana flamenco dance, but I couldn’t remember the pasos. When it was time to go, her little brother, Jesus, sat in a chair and cried. “Susan, no te vayas, por favor, no te vayas.” Susan, don’t go, please don’t go. I hugged the seven-year-old and assured him we’d see each other soon. Monte Olivete became my second home. The place where I learned to speak Spanish while enjoying long conversations over Cruzcampo beer or tinto de verano, wine coolers. Dolores and Chickie treated me like family and invited me over for dinner often. Their mother, Carmen, charmed me with her paella and her stories of survival in Civil War Spain. Their father, Lukey, reminded me of my dad. When I wasn’t there or at Maria Luisa’s, I visited with Rosario and her mother, Trini, who told me her faith was what sustained her through the challenges of life. She too had lived through the civil war, so I knew they’d been significant. I told them about my personal relationship with Jesus, and she looked at me as if I didn’t realize Jesus was not a twentieth-century American. Had she and the others wanted to tell me that their country knew of Jesus before mine was ever mapped? Probably, but they were too polite, and like my “unsaved” friends in Cleveland, they were saving me more than I realized. Although I hadn’t learned anything more about my family’s possible Jewish heritage, it was as if I had traveled 5,000 miles to find a branch of my family I hadn’t known before. It was a chord so in tune, it surprised me as well as my Spanish friends. We became so close, so quickly. I had never felt better about myself. Now I really was born again, but not in the way Evangelicals described it. I dreaded leaving all this behind. When the time came for me to leave Spain, Rosario and Magui scheduled a taxi to pick them up first and then headed to my apartment in La Triana. I cried the whole way to the train station, holding Rosario’s hand as Magui stroked my hair and hugged me, telling me how much they would miss me. When we arrived, twenty others had come to send me off. I was stunned. They broke into song, clapping their hands and singing as the train pulled away from the station.
“Algo se muere en el alma cuando un amigo se va.” Something in the soul dies when a friend leaves.
Causes Susan Parker Supports
National Eating Disorder Association
The Trevor Project