Buildings in Cordoba’s Casco Antiguo
After a week in Sevilla, I decided it would be fun to take a day trip somewhere this weekend. I knew of a few organizations that had trips organized for international students: all-included beach excursions with transportation, sangria, and more. It would have been cheap and easy to navigate, but I was being obstinate and didn’t want to go on a trip geared toward international students.
Here’s the thing. “Come to America, learn English” has always made me cringe. America is a melting pot, a patchwork quilt, a country of immigrants, what have you (at least, that’s the idea, that’s our history, and that’s something that we especially need to be reminded of today.) That nasty rhetoric is directed at immigrants, who historically do not come to America with privilege. Me and the other Americans in Sevilla, on the other hand? We are here because of our privilege. Educational, economic, and political privilege allows us to travel internationally with relative ease. And with that privilege, I believe there comes a responsibility to educate oneself as much as possible in local customs, and yes, language. But it doesn’t work that way. Instead, the “tired, poor, huddled masses” are told to assimilate, to denounce their ancestry in favor of stars and stripes and American English. Meanwhile, Americans are systematically enabled to travel all over the world without necessarily learning a word of another language. The service industry in so many nations is expected to speak English. We walk down foreign streets, swearing and squealing in English, defaulting to our mother tongue as soon as there’s a hint that someone else here speaks it.
Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for all of the blessings that have allowed me to travel and to be here. I did nothing to earn my US citizenship, which has allowed me to travel with ease. Nor did I earn the French citizenship that allowed me to come here without a visa. I am lucky to have a family who has always encouraged me to travel. I have always felt guilty that I don’t speak French. I feel guilty that I went to Starbucks on my way to class yesterday. And while I want so badly to see as much of the world as possible, I would like to avoid supporting a culture of international exchange that so heavily favors America. I don’t want to spend my time in Spain being catered to as a foreigner. I would rather not speak English in restaurants, bars, train stations and markets.
All of this, coupled with my distaste for group activities, to explain why I went to Cordoba alone yesterday. I bought my outgoing train ticket a few days ago, which is how I ended up at the Sevilla Santa Justa station at 8:30 in the morning, running on four hours of sleep and clutching a plastic water bottle in the hopes that my hangover would go away. For someone who loves to plan things, I did a terrible job this time. I asked a cashier in the train station if they sold aspirin, and she said no; the nearest pharmacy was several minutes down the road. Then she dug in her pocket, smiled, and handed me her emergency aspirin. Today in particular, I was helped tremendously by the people I encountered: the elderly woman in the Cordoba train station, who pushed a baby in a stroller and told me which bus to take to the casco antiguo–the old part of town. The waiter who was mercifully quick when I ordered my cafe con leche, and told me how to get to La Mezquita on foot. The woman on my return train who asked me if she was on the correct platform, mistaking me for a glorious moment for a Spaniard.
But Cordoba itself. I don’t know much about any history, let alone Spanish history, but I did study a poem in a Spanish Lit class that stuck with me:
Canción del jinete
Lejana y sola.
Jaca negra, luna grande,
y aceitunas en mi alforja.
Aunque sepa los caminos,
yo nunca llegaré a Córdoba.
Por el llano, por el viento,
jaca negra, luna roja.
La muerte me está mirando
desde las torres de Córdoba.
¡Ay que camino tan largo!
¡Ay mi jaca valerosa!
¡Ay que la muerte me espera,
antes de llegar a Córdoba!
Lejana y sola.
– Federico García Lorca
Distant and alone.
A black nag, the giant moon,
and olives in my saddlebag.
Even if I know the way,
I never will reach Cordoba.
Over the plain, through the wind,
A black nag, the bloody moon.
The Reaper is watching me
From the tall towers of Cordoba.
Oh, such a long road!
Oh, my valiant nag!
Oh, the Reaper awaits me
before I ever reach Cordoba!
Distant and alone.
– Translation, Charles W. Johnson
This poem, combined with the architecture and history of la Mezquita–a cathedral built around a mosque, as Catholics conquered Muslims in Southern Spain, gave me a sense that Cordoba especially embodies and exemplifies both triumph and strife, and that it holds crucial symbolic value within Spanish history. The part of the city I arrived to seemed pretty standard; the train station stood between bustling intersections, and city buses came and went amidst cars and motorcycles. But tucked within the modern day city is historic architecture. I passed a public bathhouse on my way to la Mezquita. I found my way to la Mezquita’s courtyard, bustling full of tourists and guards, with a rectangular fountain near the middle.
Once inside, I saw all the traditional art and decoration of Catholic cathedrals. But the arches and architecture differed from what I’ve seen in any other church. Then I saw, alongside sectioned off sculptures honoring Christ, the Virgin Mary, and various saints, gorgeous blue and gold tiles inlaid in the walls.
I don’t mean to create an image that would suggest that this structure represents interfaith worship or some sort of utopian harmony between Catholics and Muslims in Spain. It is a Catholic-dominated space in a Catholic-dominated country. I looked into it a bit, and it turns out that Spanish Muslims have petitioned to pray in this building and have been denied by the Vatican.
After leaving la Mezquita, I wandered for a while through narrow cobblestone streets lined by whitewashed buildings. Souvenir shops and restaurants were everywhere, and smells of fresh bread, fried food, and leather mixed together in the streets. Then I walked down to the river, and crossed a bridge to the 12th century Calahorra Tower, which houses a museum. I generally hate museums, and didn’t want to spend more money, so instead of going inside I walked by the river for a bit. But I was still very exhausted and soon took a bus back to the train station.
It was a relief to get back to Sevilla. Even as I walked in the heat from the train station to the metro to get back to my apartment, I had the sense of being back in familiar territory. I was relieved again to arrive to my metro stop, and more so to get back to my apartment in time for a siesta.