Five Myths About Seville, Debunked

“I’ll just stop talking before I ruin the Feria de Sevilla for you,” Dan remarked, noticing that I’d stuck my fingers in my ears. A history and archaeology professor at one of the city’s universities, he’d already struck down a number of things I’d known to be true about my adopted city.

5 Myths about Seville

In a city as mythical as Seville, I’ve become privy to tall tales and lore that have only grown to be larger-than-life legends in the Hispalense. But Dan’s early morning route with Context Travel astonished me with how many things I’d had wrong. Winding through the streets of Santa Cruz and the Arenal and speaking about the centuries that shaped modern Spain and the New World, I had to shut my mouth and just listen (always hard on a tour when you know so many of the city’s secrets!):

Gazpacho was invented by the Moors

Dishes with a legend are rife in Spain, and Seville’s claims to gazpacho are just as common. Gazpacho is a cold, tomato-based soup that pops up on menus as both a dish and a garnish. It’s also about the only Spanish dish I’ve mastered. While the word gazpacho is of Arabic origin, and they commonly ate a dish of bread, garlic and olive oil, the dish as we know it today is definitely is not of Moorish invention.

gazpacho andaluza in spain

It a simple question of history: The Moors conquered the Iberian Penninsula over centuries, beginning in 711. The last were expelled in 1492 from Granada, the same year that the Catholic Kings sent a young dreamer, Christopher Columbus, to find a passage to India. Tomatoes come from the Americas, so the very earliest they would have appeared in Spain was the late 15th Century. While Moors lingered in Spain for centuries, the introduction of vinegar, tomatoes and cucumber would come much later.

Seville is flat

Columbus may have been onto something else: for all of the boasting I do about how perfect Seville is for biking and walking, the city was built in Roman times around a series of hills. Little remains of the Roman past within the city limits, save a few columns on Calle Mármoles, the crumbling aqueduct that once carried water from Carmona, and the recovered mosaics and fish paste factory in the Antiquarium underneath Plaza de la Encarnación. If you want to see ruins, head to nearby Itálica or Carmona, or even two hours north to Mérida.

Context history tours in Seville Spain

Roman Seville – then called Hispalis – had five major hills, with strategically built fortresses and temples built atop them. Laid out in a cross fashion, the major thoroughfares, called Cardus Maximus and Decumanus Maximus, and likened, to the main arteries of the human body, lead to a crossing near Plaza de la Alfalfa. This site was likely home to the forum, and Plaza del Salvador excavations have led archaeologists to believe the the curia and basilica once stood here. Indeed, the street leading from the east-west axis is the city’s one “hill,” dubbed Cuesta del Rosario, or Rosary Hill.

Where to see Roman ruins in Seville

My glutes would be better off having some changes in elevation, but my knees are glad that silt from the Atlantic, which once lapped shores near to the Cathedral and old city walls, filled in the shallow valleys.

The true meaning of barrios

The streets of Seville are steeped in history, and many of their names give tourists a historical context. In my neighborhood, Calle Castilla stems out from the ruins of the Moorish castle, Calle Alfarería reveals where pottery and ceramic kilns once stood, and Rodrigo de Triana takes the name of the prodigal son who was reputedly the first to spot the New World from high in a crow’s nest.

casa de la moneda sevilla

When Seville became a bustling commercial center after the Reconquist in the mid 13th Century, European merchants flocked from other ports of call to take part – population boomed, making Seville not only the most important city in Iberia, but also the largest in Europe.

Dan explained that competition was fierce amongst bands of merchants, and large manor homes were constructed around the cathedral to showcase not only the wares – olive oil was big business, even then – but also wealth. Just peak into any open doors in Santa Cruz, and you’ll see what I mean. Feudal relationships existed, and small gangs of street were established as territories, owned and operated by the merchant groups.

Santa Cruz Sevilla neighborhood

Because of this, streets bear names like Alemanes (German) or Francos (French). The wealthiest group? The Genovese, whose market wares were sold on Avenida de la Constitución – the most important street in the city center.

You may know another important genovés who passed through Seville during this time – he set off from Spain in 1492.

Triana was the historically poor neighborhood 

Dan asked the other tour guests what they’d done since arriving in Seville the previous day. “Oh, we wandered over the bridge to the neighborhood on the other side of the river. Lovely place, very lively.” 


“Well,” Dan replied, taking off his sunglass for effect, “Triana used to be one of the richest sectors of the city.”

I was baffled – I’d spun tales about how my barrio had once housed seafarers, flamenco dancers and gypsies, and thus made it more colorful and authentic, an oasis untouched by tourist traps and souvenir shops. In reality, the heart of Triana – from the river west to Pagés del Corro, and from Plaza de Cubs to just north of San Jacinto – was encapsulated in high stone walls and a number of manor houses during the Al-Andalus period in the 10th Century. 

Capilla del Carmen Triana Anibal Gonzalez

After the Christian Reconquist and subsequent destruction of the Castillo San Jorge, artisans, labor workers and sailors took up residence in Triana, perpetuating the stereotype that the neighborhood has been poor since its origins. Poor or not, it’s full of character and close to the city center, yet feels far away.

Orange trees are native to the city

I had learned the importance of citrus fruits in Seville’s culinary history during a Devour Seville food tour, and had wrongfully assumed that orange trees had been around since the time of the Moors. After all, they brought their language, their spices and their architectural heritage, so surely they’d thought to plant orange trees. Maybe they did – the Monasterio de la Cartuja is said to have edible oranges, and the cathedral’s Arabic courtyard is named for the naranjos that populate it – but it was renowned Sevillian architect Aníbal González who suggested planting orange trees along roads and in private gardens.

Oramge trees in Seville

Hallmarks of the Neo-mudéjar visionary are littered around the city and other Andalusian cities, including his obra maestra, the half-moon Plaza de España. And Each year when the azahar blooms, I’ll be reminded that the Novio’s great grandparents wouldn’t have marked the start of springtime with their scent like I’ve come to do.

I’d spill more, but the tour will reveal dark moments during the Inquisition, hidden secrets from the bustling commercial period after the Reconquist, and where the New World archives actually are – it’s a tour made for history buffs and visitors who want a more inside scoop on a city’s political, geographical and historical origins. Admittedly, many of these facts can be found online, but the point is that locals perpetuate the incorrect myths as a way to keep the magical of the city intact. Sevillanos exaggerate, and these many of these tales are as tall as the Giralda itself.

Typical Seville Streets

Dan and I walked back over the Puente San Telmo towards Triana, and I offered to buy him a beer back in the barrio (even though he tells me I’m from the cutre part). One Seville myth that will never die: cerveza is cheap and aplenty in this city, and tastes best on a sunny day with friends.

Context Travel graciously invited me on the Seville Andalusian Metropolis tour free of charge; tickets are 80€ each ($91 USD at publishing), plus any entrance fees you may incur. Tourists are encouraged to tell the guide what things they’d like to see and explore to help give the tour shape – their tagline is #traveldeeper, after all! You can also look for them in Europe, North America, Asia and South America. 

Are there any odd myths in the city where you live?

Let’s Have a Little Talk About Spanish Toilets

The smell hits me like a pata de jamón to the head: a cocktail of bathroom disinfectant, spilled hand soap, ancient pipes and bleach. And that’s only if the person before me hasn’t bothered to flush.

Verdad verdadera: if you drink liquids, you have to pee. If you drink beer, you have to pee twice as much. And if you drink beer in Spain, you have to pee in a filthy, poorly lit bathroom that likely doesn’t have toilet paper (and if it does, you’d better steal what’s left of the roll and stash that contraband in your purse).

In the eight years I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve not been able to get over Spanish bathrooms.I’d do a silent fist pump when I’d find a few scraps of toilet paper, or a toilet seat, or even hand soap (also known as the váter Holy Trifecta) in a public bathroom.

But váter, you and I have to have a talk.

Let's Talk About Bathrooms in Spain

It was on a sweltering July night at an old man bar in my neighborhood that I actually considered shuffling three blocks back to house to use our facilities. But I’d had several vermouths, so I handed the Novio my purse and scuttled to the unisex bathroom.

The space was hardly larger than a broom closet (in fact, it probably once was), and my toes rested right next to the door when I closed it. I was wearing sandals, so the bottoms of my feet became soaked in who knows what. As I squatted, my butt hit the wet pipe attached to the flush, and I struggled to find the light switch in the dark. The pipes creaked as I attempted to flush a running toilet, so I gave up entirely, ran my hands under the faucet obsessively and ordered another vermouth (though grain alcohol to kill any germs might have been a better option).

I won’t call out any names here, but as a rule of thumb, if it’s a brightly-lit cervecería frequented by old men, you shouldn’t expect anything special. A step up might be a restaurant frequented by the same old men. I won’t even get into the toilets at discos – particularly the outdoor terraces in the summer. I mean, even the Parador de Zafra, a luxury hotel owned by the Spanish government, has a problem keeping toilets stocked with toilet paper!

Not all hope is lost – any place that caters to tourists or business travelers has a better shot at possessing the Váter Trifecta. But Andalucía seems to be the worst when it comes to bathrooms. A friend of mine runs food tours and trained her Seville guides to always bring a small pack of tissues for tour guests, lest they be forced to drip dry.

What are toilets like in Spain

My buttload of gripes has grown as I’ve gotten older. I mean, I went to a large Midwestern University where Saturday morning tailgating meant either sneaking into a stranger’s house on Melrose Court, or finding an alternative solution. But a civilized country deserves a civilized sort of outhouse.

First off, women’s restrooms in Spain tend to double as storage closets for empty beverage bottles, stacking crates and even cleaning supplies (so where the cojones do they keep the toilet paper?!). On more than one occasion, I’ve had to crawl over a pile of crap just to get to the toilet.

I’ve made it abundantly clear that toilet paper is noticeably absent in a high percentage of bathrooms. If you’re a lady, whenever you feel the urge, you either have to rummage around in your purse for kleenex, discreetly ask a friend, or grab a wad of napkins from a table. But Spanish napkins aren’t designed to do anything more than mop up wax, so you’re better off not even trying with them. Note to self: add Kleenex packets to my shopping list.

But don’t throw tissue (or waxy napkins, or really anything non-liquid) into the toilet bowl, because you will cause stress on already overworked pipes and clog the toilet. I once made that mistake and couldn’t show my face in that bar for two months – TWO months! But don’t worry, there will be a NO TIRAR PAPELES AL WC sign affixed somewhere in the room just in case you forget. “We won’t replace the toilet paper for months because we don’t want you to accidentally throw it in the bowl” seems to be every old man bar’s mantra.

bathroom soap in Spain

Soap and paper towels have no place in a  Spanish bathroom either, so even washing your hands can be futile. Alternatives are your jeans, your jacket, or simply walking out of the toilet with wet hands, people moving away from you as if you were covered in blood or leprosy sores. Makes you want to wipe your hands on the bartender’s jeans instead.

And let’s talk briefly about you can only use bathrooms if you’ve had a consumición at the bar? I’ve had to resort to slamming a beer and beelining to the bathroom or ordering a scalding café con leche and have it sit waiting for me as I squatted over yet another shitty (pardon the pun) latrine. Even the holes in the ground in China and Turkey seem more sanitary than the “marvels of modern plumbing” in Iberia.

My first vision of Spain was from a bus that pulled into my study abroad city, Valladolid. I pulled the Iberia blanket off of my head and groggily stared out the window as we stopped at a stoplight. A young mother was holding her child at arm’s length as the little girl let out a steady stream of pis. On the street. In plain daylight. Consumption at a bar be damned, this kid is peeing on a tree.

Pues nada.

This post is a little NSFW, yes, but a constant topic when I’m with my guiri friends. Have any other bathroom gripes to add?

Photo Post: A Visit to the Seville Cathedral Rooftop

There are some things in Seville that don’t need any further explanation – a cotton candy sunset over Triana, Plaza de España’s beautiful tile benches, the dreamy chords and staccato of a flamenco performance.

And then there’s the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and its stunning minaret. Visiting the rooftop has long been on my to-do list, and even with a guide recounting the history, lore and practicality of the temple, the views of La Hispalense needed no explanation.

Florentino met us at Puerta de San Miguel, adjacent to Avenida de la Constitución. It was a busy Saturday evening, and the streets were clogged with families and street performers. Once we’d stepped inside – our guide with an enormous key and soft feet – we’d get ground rules: watch your step, stay with the group, and don’t touch any wires.

The massive cathedral of Seville

We climbed a winding staircase, worn down by more than 600 years of history. Etched Stars of David, rhombuses and other figures were a testament to the 100 years it took to build the cathedral once the city was reconquered. It was dark and cramped, but we emerged just over the sacristy, affording us views of Plaza de Virgen de los Reyes below.

The Giralda

cathedral in seville

For someone who has climbed the Giralda and visited the cathedral itself two dozen times, I didn’t think the building and anchor any touristic route would hold much mystery. 

Florentino reminded us to watch our step as I nearly tripped over a stone pod on the uneven surface. These devices were used as weights for the reliquia below – statues, paintings and even old altarpieces were hoisted using this archaic system.  So, there, I learned something. He pointed out features in the building process, from the stained glass to the buttresses, navigated a labyrinth of staircases, rooms and small patios.

sunset from the seville cathedral

sunset Seville Spain

When you’ve admired the sprawling cathedral from below, it’s incredible to see the details up close. So close, in fact, that I received a shock from wires designed to keep pigeons away. Oops, broke rule three.

We climbed and climb, retracing the Latin cross as Florentino recounted the 500 chapels below our feet and lore about the construction and consecration of the cathedral. Like everyone else, I gasped when we reached the highest point of the tour.

The Giralda Tower Seville

We were just a few yards from the Giralda, and climbed up the dome of the sacristy to contemplate the tower. Along with the Patio de los Naranjos, the minaret is a trace of the mosque that stood here until the reconquest in the 12th century.

Rooftop tour of the cathedral

Entering the temple shortly after, we walked behind the organ on a small walkway that could only accommodate you if you squeezed by, careful not to trip over the wires that light the naves. I had lost Florentino’s voice by now, but that hardly mattered.

Stained glass at the Seville Cathedral

rosette window in the catedral de sevilla

Once back on the ground, I could truly appreciate the immensity of the cathedral and its importance in Seville lore and history. The church built to inspire all those who see it to think that the architects and commissioners must have been crazy. Crazy, maybe.

If you go: Conocer Sevilla runs weekly visits to the cathedral rooftop – called the Cubertizo de la Catedral. Tours are about 90 minutes, cost 12 per person and it’s recommendable to wear comfortable clothing, as surfaces are unsteady and there is a bit of climbing involved. For more information and reservations, check Conocer Sevilla’s webpage.

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I visited the cathedral as part of the Typical NonSpanish project with Caser Expat. For more on the project, visit their webpage or find them on twitter.

Who is the Duquesa de Alba, and what’s with my obsession with her?

The tweets and whastapps started coming in almost immediately, from friends, from followers, even from the Novio’s family. Te acompañamos en el sentimiento, Cati. Are you holding up alright? Will you light a candle for me in her honor?

Ok, so my favorite Spanish tabloid staple and Seville’s most famous resident passed from this world, likely flamenco dancing up to the Pearly Gates (of which she has probably had claim on for five generations), but I’m not falling over crying. Just sighing that I won’t now get to imagine passing her on the street the way I’ve done with Falete or have a beer at the table next her, as I did with  Mariano Peña a few weeks ago.


Photo from El País

Throw a mantilla over the Guadalquivir, y’all – Cayetana has left her beloved Hispalis and this world on November 20th, and the city is just a little sadder and a bit less colorful without her.

My blog can be described as a love letter to Andalucia, to expat life in Spain, to Spanish culture. So what sort of service would I do to readers if I didn’t give my virtual eulogy to a Spain’s most decorated aristocrat and a woman who I’ve been fascinated with since my first disastrous time in the chair of a peluquería with the prensa rosa spread across my lap so as to avoid conversation with the hairdresser?

Who is María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-Stuart James?

The Duchess, known as Cayetana, was born in the Liria Palace of Madrid to Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, 17th Duke of Alba, and his wife María del Rosario de Silva y Gurtubay. And it gets better – her godmother was Victoria Eugenie, wife of King Alfonso XIII.

Through a complex series of marriages, lineages and inheritances, Cayetana (full name: María del Rosario Cayetana Paloma Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Fernanda Teresa Francisca de Paula Lourdes Antonia Josefa Fausta Rita Castor Dorotea Santa Esperanza Fitz-James Stuart, Silva, Falcó y Gurtubay [no joke]) held more noble titles recognized by a still-existing country and was considered Grande de España fourteen times over. In fact, when Scotland was debating independence from the UK, The Duchess had a shot at becoming its queen.

And that isn’t even the good stuff, unless you like challenging yourself with memorizing her monikers and all of her titles.

How did she get so darn famous?

All that nobility stuff aside, what really made Cayetana famous was her willingness to break with convention. Friend of Jackie O, asked to be Picasso’s muse and considered one of the most beautiful women in Spain when she was younger, the Duquesa has been in the spotlight since her family returned from exile after the Spanish Civil War.


Photo from

Cayetana was raised to love art, horsemanship and performance, passing her holidays between London, Seville and her native Madrid, and she became the 18th Duchess of Alba when her father, Jimmy, died when she was 27 years old.

As the head of the House of Alba, it fell on Cayetana to attend to her family’s mass fortune, which includes thousands of acres of land, a dozen palaces and countless works of art and historical artifacts.

This, of course, was a high price to pay, and much of her life was rocked by ESCÁNDOLO as she became a rather permanent fixture in tabloid covers. And being preceded by another scandalous Cayetana de Alba, rumored to be painter Francisco de Goya’s muse in La Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida, not one part of her private life seemed safe – not marriages, children or fortune, much less her desire to live her life as she saw fit (or even bare all in the Baleares or danced barefoot in the streets of Seville).

Weddings of the Duquesa de Alba

In 1942, and at the urge of her family, she married fellow aristocrat Luis Martínez de Irujo and had six children – five males and a female, each of whom inherited a title and promise to the patrimony. She was widowed in 1972, and rather than living out her days, she married a defrocked Jesuit priest and illegitimate love child, Jesús Aguirre y Ortíz de Zurrate in 1978.

Once more, she outlived her second husband and spent years throwing herself into promoting Spanish culture and  filling her agenda with social and charitable acts.

Scandal shook when Cayetana was rumored to be romancing Alfonso Díez, a civil servant and public relations pro who is 24 years her junior. Her children staunchly opposed, as did the King of Spain, but Cayetana maintained that their longtime friendship had evolved into something more amorous, and to prove it, she divvied up her money and properties to her children and grandchildren.

And none for Alfonso Díez, as Gretchen Weiners can sympathize.

Spain's Duchess of Alba Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva dances flamenco beside her husband Alfonso Diez at the entrance of Las Duenas Palace after their wedding in Seville

picture from The Local

Just before the wedding in 2011, Intervíu magazine featured the Duchess on the cover in an old photo, sunbathing topless during a family trip years before. Like most of the scandals, Cayetana shrugged it off and did her thing. She and Díez married in Seville in October of that same year, and after the small ceremony concluded, she and her pink wedding dress took to the street to dance sevillanas. How’s that for a big old middle finger to convention and royal behavior?

A people’s royal, indeed (and I like to think she had a cervecita at the bar across the street from her palace rightwards).

And, Why do I love her so much?

The only time I ever saw the Duquesa de Alba, she was riding in her horse carriage down Calle Gitanillo de Triana. I thought she was a mirage – or that I was in a rebujito haze – and tried to pull out my camera from deep within the folds of the volantes of my flamenco dress. 


 Photo from El País

I ran back to the caseta, exasperated, to tell the Novio. “Well of course, she’s a woman unafraid to be with the masses, to enjoy Seville the same way that we do.” For someone from a country that has always debunked the monarchy and where wealth is amassed more from hard work (or, ahem, scandal), the thought that someone so rich would walk around the center of Seville in ballet flats seemed uncanny.

And that she was. Cayetana was larger-than-life, avant garde, cercana. A true lover and believer of the ‘Live and Let Live’ school. I like to think she was a fighter, from the difficult pregnancy her mother had, to the various health problems that plagued her later in life.

When news that she was frail and had been transferred from the hospital to her favored residence, Palacio de las Dueñas in the heart of Seville, I knew it was the beginning of the end.


It’s a well-known fact that I’ve always joked that the one big thing left on my Seville bucket list is meeting the Duquesa de Alba. On Friday morning, I became one of 80,000 people to file past her mortal remains, draped with the Spanish and Casa de Alba flags, at the Ayuntamiento. Said to be deathly afraid of being alone, the streets were full of reporters, well wishers and even curious tourists from other parts of Spain.

I stayed silent, not because I was reflecting on Cayetana’s life or because I was uninterested, but because it didn’t seem like the time or the place. I had to laugh that the viewing room of a public figure is called the capilla ardiente – a flaming chapel for a flamboyant character. Seems about right.

Because really, my love for Cayetana goes más allá – she’s more like a metaphor for how much I love Spain and its culture. The Duquesa was dedicated to Spanish art as an avid collector, to flamenco, to bullfighting, to horsemanship. 

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The Novio jokes that I’ll be the new Duquesa de Triana because Cayetana and I share many passions – Cruzcampo, Real Betis Balompié, Sevilla and the salt of life. I want to live my years left on my own terms, surrounded by people I love and leaving some sort of legacy, no matter how insignificant. I don’t need to have an autobiography or to be a topic on Sálvame, but should it happen, I sincerely hope to not give a crap. Olé tú, Cayetana, y que viva la Patrona de Dejarme Vivir.

My one request when it’s my turn to go? That my ashes be spread between Lake Michigan, Calle Gitanillo de Triana and Cervcería La Grande.

Seville Snapshots: Costaleros Practicing for Holy Week

The capataz knocks once. As if mechanically, the 40-off men beneath the wooden structure heave together, resting on their heels, hands gripping the wooden beams above their heads.

A second knock, and they launch into the air together.

On the third, the simulation float has rested on their shoulders, and they begin a coordinated dance down the street, walking in sync as they practice for their glorious penitence – Holy Week.

You all know that I paso de pasos (and the crowds, and the brass bands and even the torrijas), but the grueling pilgrimage from one’s church to the Cathedral and back fascinates me. No one bears the brunt more than the costaleros, who must pay for this prestigious position within their brotherhoods and seek penitence through their labor, carrying over 100 pounds for an average of eight hours.

In the weeks leading up to Viernes de Dolores, no less than 60 brotherhoods will crisscross the city to practice, placing cinderblocks on top of the metal float to simulate the large statue, each depicting the final moments of Jesus Christ’s life or of the weeping Virgin Mary. For ten days, Seville is full of religious fervor as the ornate pasos descend on the city center.

For an official route plan with approximate times, check here. You can use this to either catch the processions, or totally avoid them!

What are your Holy Week plans? Have you ever seen Semana Santa in Seville?

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.

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