The City Of Sorrows: Understanding Seville’s Gypsy Culture (part 2)

Where we last left off with Susan Nadathur, author of the novel ‘City of Sorrows’ about Seville’s Gypsy culture, she was telling us about Gypsy Culture as seen by outsiders. To research her book, Susan lived with a family in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, and what she found out was surprising.

How did you end up living with the Gypsies in Spain? And what sticks out most about their culture?

Living with the Gypsies has become part of my life story. But it sort of got fleshed out when as a young woman I traveled to Seville after graduating from college in 1982. While there, I met the man who is now my husband. Govind is a first generation Indian, which led to some interesting experiences in Spain—mostly because many Spaniards confused him for a Gypsy.

As you may know, the Gypsies trace their ancestry back to the Punjab region in northern India, whose people journeyed from India to Europe in the 15th century. If you look at the features of many Gypsies today, they share many common physical characteristics with East Indians, so the confusion is understandable. Anyway, after having lived through some interesting, and at times painful experiences with Govind, I became curious about the Gypsies. I wondered why there was so much negative energy surrounding the culture. Years later, I started to write the book that is now City of Sorrows. Because I felt it was my responsibility to understand the culture well, so that I could write about it with clarity and avoid the stereotypes, I returned to Spain in 2008 and found my way into a Gypsy home. How that happened is an interesting story which begins and ends with a Spanish Gypsy pastor, Pepe Serrano.

To make a long story short, I ended up in a Pentecostal Gypsy church called La Iglesia Dios Con Nosotros (God with Us), in one of the most sordid sectors of the city (Las Tres Mil Viviendas). But not once did I ever feel unsafe. The congregation embraced me, though kept me at a distance whenever I asked questions about their culture. Too many years of marginalization and oppression had made them wary of foreigners. But as the weeks went by, and they began to trust me, my experiences began to change. I was invited into people’s homes, into their lives. Finally, I was asked to leave the apartment I had rented in Seville and invited to live with Pastor Pepe and his family in their home on the outskirts of Seville. Once I moved into Pastor Pepe’s home, I no longer had to ask questions. I only had to live as part of a family to understand the people I was writing about.

As far as what sticks out most about Gypsy culture is the way that they are able to maintain their traditional values without being remarkably changed by mainstream Spanish society. For example, the Gypsies place a high value on two things: a woman’s “honor” and respecting the elderly. In a society where premarital sex is prevalent and the elderly are placed in homes to be cared for by strangers, this adherence to what might be considered ‘traditional values” is inspiring. I was also impressed with how children obeyed their parents, with no back talk and/or disrespect. While my Spanish friends endured all the “talking back” and disrespect rampant in modern society, the Gypsy children I met (from all ages from toddler up to young adult) obeyed their parents and did what was asked—even if they didn’t agree with what their parents were asking of them.

One of the most surprising things I learned while visiting Las Tres Mil was that the Gypsies lived far better, and in much cleaner environments, than I had imagined. To tell you the truth, I was at first skeptical about taking a bus into Las Tres Mil. I’d heard all the horror stories about the poverty and the crime. My first impression of the neighborhood supported my perceptions. Piles of garbage lined the streets, and the buildings smelled of urine and alcohol. Once off the bus, I found myself thinking that I was going to be entering a ramshackle, run-down apartment complex. What I found instead was a beautifully maintained, humble yet comfortable home.

And what amazed me most was the family dynamic I experienced inside that humble home. The women cooked and served, the men socialized and were served. That might go against what most of us modern women expect in our homes, but in reality, it was a loving, functional way to be. Everyone laughed and shared. No one felt imposed upon or used. After dinner, the women got to work again, cleaning up the pots and pans, sweeping the floors, and then finally, sitting down to watch TV, all together as a family. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had.

Can you describe the writing process for City of Sorrows?

The writing of City of Sorrows was an almost eight-year process which began in the year 2004, when I told my husband “I’m going to write a novel.” Little did I know then how difficult that task would be. For the first two years after making that energetic declaration, I devoured books on the craft of fiction, books like Stephen King’s On Writing and James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. I wrote at least ten drafts, cutting, editing and revising as I went along. Then I read more articles, books, and blog posts about characterization, style, voice, and every other conceivable topic. Then with all this new knowledge, I went back to rewriting. Several drafts later, I finally hired a professional editor. That was when I thought I was close to being done with the manuscript. But then I decided to revisit Spain, for research purposes, where I lived on and off between 2008 and 2011. Much of that time, I lived with pastor Pepe and his family. I thought I was going to complete the manuscript in the fall of 2011, but to my horror, I didn’t write a single word of my novel the whole time I was in Spain. I spent all my time hanging out with the families and writing all these wonderful experiences in my journal. Then in 2012 City of Sorrows was finally complete and published by a small, independent press in Puerto Rico.

What’s next for you as a writer? Any other projects planned or underway?

I am currently working on a young adult paranormal romance about the downside of temptation and desire, the fragility of being human, and the challenges of being different in the Hispanic Caribbean. It is set on the island of Puerto Rico and has the working title Dante’s Kiss.

Interested in winning your own copy? Susan is an avid follower of Sunshine and Siestas and has offered one copy, either digital or paperback, to another reader of this blog. We’re interested in knowing how you feel about Gypsy culture, regardless of whether or not you’ve lived in Spain.

rafl/display/ca3df24/” rel=”nofollow”>a Rafflecopter giveaway

The winner will be randomly chosen from the entries on November 22nd, in honor of the Spanish celebration of El Día de los Gitanos Andaluces. Susan is offering City of Sorrows at a promotional price of $9.59 for the print book and $4.19 for the Kindle book, throughout the month of November. You can purchase on Amazon (City of Sorrows on Kindle or City of Sorrows Paperback) or via Susan’s author website. You’ll learn that it goes beyond flamenco and jaleo – Gypsy culture is passion, devotion, tradition.

The City of Sorrows: Understanding Seville’s Gypsy Culture (and giveaway!)

Driving past Las Tres Mil Viviendas, the notorious gypsy neighborhood on the southern end of Seville, is a daily constant for me. I’ve often wondered what life is like for the squatters who make their home there, where rumored jaleos stretch long in to the night. I’ve seen stray animals wandering around the stark grounds, nibbling on discarded garbage, from my car’s passenger side. Sevillanos consider it to be the most dangerous neighborhood in the city – so much, in fact, that policemen are said to not go there.

Gypsy culture is both revered and shunned, creating an interesting but sobering relationship between them and payos, Spaniards. Spain’s most celebrated artistis – from Camarón to Lorca to Falla – have gitano origins or influence, yet rejection, intolerance and marginalization continue to exist.

I recently read Susan Nadathur‘s debut book, City of Sorrows, about the difficult relationship between ethnic Gypsies, Spaniards and even outsiders. The fictional novel is a heartbreaking look at the misconceptions that exist in mainstream society, as well a message about overcoming tragedy in both cultures. Susan researched the book while living with a family in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, providing a powerful basis from which to understand Gypsy life.

Intrigued by what I’d read, I asked Susan a few questions about her research and experience living with a gitano family. This is the first part of our interview:

Your novel challenges the idea that Gypsies are all fortune tellers, thugs and thieves. What should mainstream society know about Spanish Gypsy culture?

Mainstream society – both in Europe and the United States – has been at odds with the Gypsies since their migration from India in the 15th century. The Gypsies have lived most of their history accused of being different, non-conformists, and problematic. They have been marginalized, stereotyped, persecuted, glorified, and under-appreciated. But, no group can be lumped into one neat package. Yes, many Gypsies are fortune tellers, con artists, and thieves. If you are a tourist in Spain, you will certainly run into Gypsy women working the streets surrounding the cathedrals, offering a sprig of rosemary in exchange for a generic palm reading.

You may find others begging in front of the cathedral door. But you will also see many other hardworking Gypsy merchants at local outdoor markets. In Seville, they are at El Charco de la Pava on Saturdays, selling everything from shoes, boots and women’s stockings to children’s clothing and luggage. These merchants are serious vendors, with permits and taxable income. They are not thieves but hardworking groups of families who are out on the streets every day, rain or shine, in the bitter cold and the oppressive heat of summer, selling the merchandise that will feed their families. If we only see the negative of a group of people, we see only half the picture.

You’ve often said that your childhood being bullied has contributed to your empathy toward Gypsies? Can you draw any comparisons to their plight with the bullying you felt as a child?

I sincerely believe that if I had not been bullied and ridiculed as a child, I would not have developed the empathy that gives me the deep awareness of the suffering of marginalized groups like the Gypsies. In any society, there is the mainstream and those who live outside of it. I grew up in New England, which has historically been harsh on people who don’t fit it—on those who are “different.” In my case, being different meant looking different than my peers. I wore thrift shop clothes in schools where plenty of kids had plenty of money to buy new ones. I was the only one in my elementary school classroom to wear glasses—and the kids let me know how ugly those glasses looked on me. I was the classic school-yard victim, bullied because I looked and acted differently.

Because of where I come from, because of having endured acute feelings of intolerance and isolation, I can identify with the Gypsies—who are not necessarily bullied, but are certainly marginalized and misunderstood. Nobody wants to get too close to people they don’t understand. It’s easier, and safer, to make fun of, slander, or simply stay away from people who make us uncomfortable. My peers were uncomfortable with me because I looked different from them, acted differently from them (I was a loner who enjoyed reading and favored solitude in the village cemetery over jeering in the school courtyard). Many of my friends are Spaniards, who have all expressed very strong opinions about “not wanting to get too close to the Gypsies.” While I understand that some of their fears are justified, I wish they could just try to understand that beneath the surface of these enigmatic people lays the same common, human experience.

What gave you the idea to write City of Sorrows?

The seeds for City of Sorrows were sown long before it grew into the complex novel it is today. When you take a shy young girl and make her feel like a lesser human being—for whatever reason—a story is formed. When that shy girl takes refuge in books, a reader is made. And when that reader turns to journaling, a writer is born.

If as a child I had not been bullied, picked on, and humiliated, I would not have developed the keen sense of empathy I have for people who are marginalized. Without that compassion, I would not have been profoundly affected by a racist remark targeted at my Indian friend (now husband of 27 years) when we lived in Seville. “Gypsies and Moors are not served here,” a surly waiter said to my friend while refusing to serve us a cup of coffee. My friend was neither a Gypsy nor a Moor, but because he came from India, was dark skinned and looked like a Gypsy—that was enough to label him “outcast.” That one statement, spat out decades ago in a bar in Seville, became the catalyst for this story of love and loss in the vibrant world of Gypsy Spain—a world I would never have penetrated if I had not felt the sting of isolation, humiliation, and rejection that gave me the unique, unspoken connection to this group of persecuted people.

Interested in winning your own copy? Susan is an avid follower of Sunshine and Siestas and has offered one copy, either digital or paperback, to another reader of this blog. We’re interested in knowing how you feel about Gypsy culture, regardless of whether or not you’ve lived in Spain.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The winner will be randomly chosen from the entries on November 22nd, in honor of the Spanish celebration of El Día de los Gitanos Andaluces. Susan is offering City of Sorrows at a promotional price of $9.59 for the print book and $4.19 for the Kindle book, throughout the month of November. You can purchase on Amazon (City of Sorrows on Kindle or City of Sorrows Paperback) or via Susan’s author website. You’ll learn that it goes beyond flamenco and jaleo – Gypsy culture is passion, devotion, tradition.

Bar Buza, Dubrovnik: COLD DRINKS WITH THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VIEWS!

It’s not everyday that the book you’re reading mentions that bar/coffeehouse/pub where you’re reading it at. The words screamed off the page: COLD DRINKS WITH THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VIEWS! My bottle of Ožujsko wasn’t that cold, but glancing out over the pristine Adriatic coastline and the plush electric green island of Lokrum and could coincide with at least one of those statements.

The word buza in local tongue quite literally means hole, and the place was advertised in our hostel as literally being a hole in the wall – a hole in the famous city walls, that is. The city center is extremely small – you can see everything in a day or so – so we figured a leisurely walk around the city center with cameras in tow would eventually lead us to one of the only bars that’s open in the off-season. Traipsing around the beautifullly restored fortifications, we quite literally ran into a wall – we could see the bar, but we couldn’t actually access it.

Wanting to check out the COLD DRINKS after walking around all afternoon and enjoy them with THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VIEWS, we wound our way up the streep staircases on the western side of the city. The bar was sparse, just some chipping and rusted handrails and some plastic chairs with rickety tables. Our beer came with plastic cups and cost a whopping 35 kuna, or about 5€, each.

The day was clear but beautiful for a late March day, so we pulled out our e-books and sipped our Ožujsko as slowly as possible. When the words of Beer in the Balkans, a tongue-in-cheek quest for cheap beer throughout the Ex-Yu, jumped out at me, I signaled the waitress for another round. Who can say no to a Croatian sunset and a warm beer?

Have you ever been to Buza Bar? Do you think it’s got the MOST BEAUTIFUL VIEWS IN THE WORLD? For more information and seasonal opening hours, check out the bar’s website

Dia del Libro: Barcelona’s Yearly Homage to the Book and my Favorite Books About Spain

Well known fact about me: I’m a huge proponent for books. I average 20 novels a year and nerd out at bookstores in Seville (and online – damn Amazon’s one-click for my Kindle!). In Spain – particularly in Cataluña – the International Day of the Book is celebrated as a day for lovers, even if only for lovers as books.

The UNESCO has delegated April 23rd as the International Day of the Book, owing to the fact that both Cervantes and Shakespeare, considered to be true purveyors of their languages, died on this day in 1616. What’s more, the feast day of St. George, the patron of Cataluña, commemorates his death and falls on April 23rd. This holiday is revered in the region, and I actually first heard of the celebration reading one of my favorite books set in Spain.

According to local legend, Sant Jordi heroically saved a princess on the outskirts of Barcelona by using a spear. From the slayed dragon’s spilt blood grew a rosebush, and Saint George pick them and gave them to the princess. Since the Middle Ages, men have been giving roses to their sweethearts on this version of Valentine’s Day, and women gift books to them. Results are a massive sale of both in the days leading up to the 23rd.

On this Catalan version of Valentine’s Day, I leave you some of my favorite books set in Spain:

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruíz Zafón

Celebrated young adult novelist Ruíz Zafón jumped into adult fiction with this superb work of mystery and intrigue, set in Barcelona. Youngster Daniel’s father takes him to a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a forlorn library stacked floor to ceiling with obscure books. The one he chooses, the Shadow of the Wind, is subsequently devoured. When his father warns him that he must protect the book forever, a sinister man tries to destroy it, throwing Daniel into a struggle to save a book and the legacy of an author called Julián Carax. Set in post-war Spain, I had an insatiable thirst for this book, relishing in the intricate story lines and well-drawn characters. I’ve subsequently read many others by the author but not the prequel to Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game.

buy it: The Shadow of the Wind Paperback | The Shadow of the Wind Kindle

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Am I the only one who felt tortured reading Old Man and the Sea? I was convinced I was anti-Hemingway, but my English lit teaching sister has set me straight. Bullfighting’s biggest proponent and the one who put Pamplona and the San Fermines festival on the map, troubled Hemingway was a Hispanophile in his own right. After having a coffee in his haunt in Pamplona, Cafe Irún, I grabbed a copy of the book with a torero emblazoned on the front. Set in 1920s Paris, a group of socialites travel to Pamplona to attend the San Fermines bullfights and running of the bulls. The book explores love, lust, masculinity and death against the backdrop of a Spanish town.

(The Paris Wife is a painful but beautifully written biography of Hermingway’s first wife, reconstructed from letters and journal entries by Paula McClain. Hadley divorced him just after the publication of The Sun Also Rises and took all of the royalties for it).

Buy it: The Sun Also Rises Paperback | The Sun Also Rises Kindle

Dancing in the Fountains: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, Karen McCann

Back in the Fall, I was thrilled to give away a copy of a laugh-out-loud tale of expat life by my friend and fellow Seville inhabitant, Karen McCann. Exploring the canny and kooky, the ups and the downs, Karen’s account of swapping brutal Cleveland winters for the eternal sunshine of Spain with her husband, Rich, is spot-on. I chuckled, recognizing several of the bars Karen and Rich frequent or the characters I’ve also come to know. This delightful recounting of the dreaming to the doing is one I’ve recommended to anyone who years for the sunshine and siestas lifestyle Karen and I enjoy.

Buy it: Dancing In The Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad Paperback |  Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad Kindle

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past, Giles Tremlett

For a country know for its exuberant and open people, talking of the Civil War and the Franco years remains taboo, even fourty years after his death. Journalist Tremlett sets out to discover the dark roots of one of Europe’s more open and inviting countries. There’s talk of sex and the boom of the tourism industry, of midnight firing squads to eradicate those who cried out against El Generalísimo, of flamenco and gypsies. To truly understand a country whose history spans more than 2000 years is difficult, but Tremlett’s book about modern Spain and its secrets sheds light on modern society.

Buy it: Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past Paperback

 Winter in Madrid, CJ Sansom

My second post-war novel is a spy story set in Madrid with strong, British characters who make a life in the capital under the new Franco government. Madrid itself takes on a persona as if it were a character, and it made me look differently at several barrios that I’d come to know and enjoy, and the story of lost love made it an enjoyable read.

Buy it: Winter in Madrid: A Novel Paperback | Winter in Madrid: A Novel Kindle

Zen Khou, Maestro, Jeremy Joseph Dean

The most recent book I read is a story that mirrors my own in many ways. Jeremy Dean left his comfortable job as a teacher in England after over twenty years to teach at a bilingual immersion school in the Comunitat Valenciana. What he finds is a school that is poorly organized, the kids not quite bilingual and his own teaching styles no match for Spanish niños. Like I said, mirrors my experience at a bilingual immersion school. Dean complements his experiences at school with the day-to-day dealings of bureaucracy and language issues, though his students (the Marias, the Jaime/Jaume and the effable Macarena) steal the show with their ganas, their progress and their gut-busting pronunciation that kept me in good spirits during my two years teaching.

One of these days, I’ll actually get around to reading Don Quijote. After all, I did by a 400 anniversary edition and threw out half of my clothes after studying abroad to make room for the 800-paged brick!

Do you celebrate Día del Libro? What are you favorite books about Spain? Like books themselves can be, these are subjective views and by no means a be-all, end-all list. I’d love to hear your suggestions – I’ll need to download onto my kindle for the Camino anyway!

Seville Snapshots: Librería Babel and the Joy of Books

As anyone who has lived in Spain will know, a shop that carries the -ía at the end is a place that sells a certain kind of product.

A carnerceía sells meat, a papelería sells paper goods, though as Lisa hoped, a bar is not called a beerería, but a cervecería. Among my favorite -ias? The liberería, a place where books are stacked high and hours can be lost among the pages. I tend to avoid the big chains, like FNAC or Beta, and head to the small, musty, off-the-Avenida shops. Some of my preferred stops are Un Gato en Bicicleta on Calle Regina for its workshops and mountains of books, La Extravagante in the Alameda for its array of travel books and memoir and La Celestina near Plaza Santa Ana in Madrid.

When I can’t travel, books become my companion. I’m nearly finished with my 20th book of the year, and books about travel line my bookshelf, products of giveaways, the American Women’s Club sales and the evil one-click button on Amazon. This picture of Librería Babel, a forlorn little place right off the main tourist drag, still far enough to go unnoticed, reminds me of the Old World book, long before TV, Internet and e-readers became mainstays.

One great travel memoir I’ve read recently is Dancing In The Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad by my fellow sevillana Karen McCann. She’s been gracious enough to give me a signed copy of the wonderfully breezy and fun book for my readers. Visit the original post for easy entrance, and be sure to follow her here.

What types of books do you prefer? Got any other scoops on bookstores in Andalucía? What are your prefered -ías in Spain?

Dancing in the Fountain: Enjoy Living Abroad Book Giveaway

I’m five minutes early, and there’s just one table left. It’s in the sun and cramped between two groups of German travelers. Karen strides in with just a moment to spare, wearing her signature animal prints. While there’s a gap in age between us, Karen is the type of friend you can have who personifies “Age is just a number.”

I’m eager to catch up with Karen over coffee and talk about her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. I devoured the book on a trip this summer though the Eastern seaboard, often subjected to gut-busting laughter and the wise head nods. The book was, in short, delightful.

As someone who loves travel books, Karen’s story of how she and her husband, Rich, moved to Seville is what Maria Foley calls a “love letter to the Andalusian capital.” Indeed, Karen captures the essence of Seville – its people, its food, its quirks that drive every single one of us crazy, all while deepening our love for this enchanting place. The perfect book for dreaming about getting away, of starting over in a new country and making it all work. 

As we are getting ready to part ways, I reach into my bag to find my wallet is empty. In an oh-so-Spanish move, Karen shoes my hand away and offers up a five euro note. “This will more than take care of it,” she says with a slight smile.

After getting back home later that day, I write my friend to apologize again about the coffee. Her reply is quick and telling: It’s happened to all of us.

Photo by the man in the hat himself, Rich McCann, at Karen’s book party

Just like your friend from toda la vida might say on any other sunny day in Seville.

The Contest

Karen has graciously agreed to donating a paperback copy of Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad to one of my readers, and I’m willing to ship it anywhere.

In order to win, I’d like you to tell us, in 25 words or less, why you’d like to live abroad, or why you chose to if you’re already here. You can earn more chances to win by following Karen and I on twitter or liking our Facebook pages, but we’re both interested in hearing what you have to say about packing up and moving to unknown lands.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Contest begins today and will run two weeks. I’ll send the winner, who will be generated randomly, the signed book to any corner of this great big Earth. But wait! I’m also going to give away a $15 Amazon gift card to the reader with the best answer, judged by and agreed on by both Karen and me.

For more information about Karen and her book, visit her webpage or follow her on twitter at @enjoylvngabroad. If you’ve read this book and enjoyed it, let her know! You can also find the book in both Paperback and Kindle version here: Dancing In The Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad.

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