Three boys, ten or twelve years old, came charging around a corner and down our way, too much involved in their own importance to recognize ours, or even, at first, register our presence at all. Our world was charged with distance and contemplation, memories and detail; theirs was apparently filled only with their own noise, and the immediacy of their moment, their presence.
It was funny, I thought; not that long ago, back at our hotel, watching with some relief as a busload of touring American teen-agers pulled away, we'd reflected that it was only the American youngster who was noisy and unheeding. In our comfortable hotel bar the Americans sat in twos and threes at tables meant for four, leaving us four to sit at the bar. Worse, imstead of comversing quietly at their tables, they called to one another at several tables' distance, making it impossible for us to talk among ourselves.
Spanish young people seemed brought up to be considerate, judging by those we saw in museums and restaurants. Removed from the presence of their elders, though, apparently, they are as rambunctious as any of ours. These three on a quiet street in Zamora, for example suddenly, though, they realized we were watching them, and they fell into a momentary confused and perhaps even embarrassed silence. Quickly, though, they had to save face.
The boldest of them addressed me, in Spanish, using the familiar tu: Turista! Are you German? No? Well, English then?
I told him politely that I came from California, but that my brother was Australian. They seemed to find that strange and amusing. They backed off and eyed us speculatively, heads at a bit of an angle. It felt like a moment out of Penrod and Sam, or Tom Sawyer.
Then the leader addresses me again: Do you want to see a strange thing, one of the local customs of Zamora? He broke into a fast shuffling dance-in-place for a couple of beats, then amazingly turned his back, dropped his pants, and looked at me from between his legs for an instant, before running full speed, pants hitched back up again, to the end of the street up the hill.
Bravo, I called to him, you looked just like one of the devils carved on a capital in the cloister! He seemed not to like that, for he picked up a stone about the size of a walnut and launched it at me quite accurately, hitting me on the leg.
I picked it up and made to throw it back at him, but all three had disappeared.
We turned back to our prospect, then walked on. After a few minutes, though, when we rounded a corner at another street, there they were again, coming our way. There were other men and women on this street, locals it seemed, and when they saw us they immediately turned tail and ran away, without making a sound. We never saw them again.
§ § §NEXT MORNING we decided to visit the Museo de Semana Santa, to learn more about the Holy Week processions of penitents we'd been seeing, and to marvel at the huge, intricate, sumptuous, and amazingly lifelike sculptural groupings on the carros — "floats" being far too trivializing a word for them — that are carried through the crowded streets by up to forty men, all hidden from view beneath the platforms, also intricately carved, on which they stand.
Seeing a well-dressed rather purposeful man on the street as we walked in the general direction of the museum I asked for directions. I do this even on the rare occasion when I already know the route; I like the opportunity to hear the language, and to practice brutalizing it a bit myself.
It's just up the street a bit, he said, I'll show you; come with me, I"m going there myself. And so he was, and so we did; and then we spent an bour or so with perhaps fifty enormous carros, taking in the entire story of Holy Week, from the triumphant Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem, through the Garden, the Betrayal, the Crucifixion and ultimately the Ascension.
It's a long time since I studied these stories, sixty-five years at least, but they seem to have stuck with me. It was amazing how many details came back, and how much significance they could suggest, if I forgot about some of the other things I've learned since. The function of these tableaus and rituals was immediately clear: not only was I reminded individually of the religious teaching I'd received; I was also cemented, so to speak, into the society of all the Christians, lapsed or faithful, gathered around me.
And it wasn't only the carros and the penitents that had this effect. Paintings and sculptures in the churches perform the same office. I was never a very good student of the Bible, but a surprising amount of even the Old Testament comes back to me as I look at these paintings of Noah or Abraham or Lot and his daughters or Judith and her servant, just as the tapestries we saw elsewhere, rich depictions of Hector and Achilles, say, trigger recollections of long-forgotten details in the Iliad.
Several hours later, on our way back to the car, we met our helpful guide again. He called out something I didn't catch, and as we drew closer I apologized that I don't understand Spanish. Yes, you speak Spanish, he said. No, I said, I speak a very little Spanish, but I don't understand it. no comprendo Español.
Sí, comprende, he insisted, and went on, always in Spanish, asking us if we'd see, the Castillo, if we'd enjoyed it, if we didn't agree that his city was a very beautiful one.
Yes, I tried to say, we enjoyed everything about Zamora. Well except that there were some boys — jovenes — who seemed a little…
But Spanish failed me utterly at that point. incivil? he asked helpfully. Sí incivil, un poco, I answered, aand was glad I couldnt emember the words for "throw" and "rock."
Oh, well, los jovenes, theyre the same everywhere, the mn said; I'm glad you enjoyed our city; do come again…
§ § §NEXT MORNING, on our way out of town, we stepped into a yardage-goods shop, attracted by the unusual fabrics displayed in the shop window. There was a faint and agreeable fragrance of good cigar in the air; I thought how nice a jacket cut from one of his woolens would be.
He seemed amused. That four tourists, obviously traveling without a sewing machine, would be so interested in his wares, and, smiling, asked us if we'd liked Zamora. I told him I was struck by the elegance of so many of the women we'd seen in the city; he seemed happy I'd noticed.
Somehow the subject of flamenco came up, and he quickly disavowed any local Interest in the art. The local dance was more a quick shuffle, first one foot, then the other, in place, without actually moving the upper body, exactly as the naughty boy had demonstrated, though with considerably more dignity. The man was a little hefty, in a sober, well-dressed way, and shuffled rather seriously; then smiled indulgently at himself, and self-deprecatingly at us.
The dance originated in imitation of the footwork of the torero, he explained. Ah, I said, is the bullfight still important here in Zamora?
He was a little incredulous. Yes, señor, of course, it is what makes us Spaniards. He expounded further, answering further questions. Yes, it is important to nearly all Spaniards, young, old, poor, well-to-to. Of course, there are some who object, there is the occasional demonstration, but it is a very small minority. He shrugged. There will always be some who refuse to belong, who reject their culture.
The corrida is central to our culture, he continued, it is what makes us Spaniards, has always been at our center and our roots. In every city there is the Plaza de Toros, and everyone can go there.
We got in the car and drove to the border, through beautiful heath in bloom, and thin pine forest that made me think of Arizona. I thought about Christianity, and the saints, the stories, tauromachia, cultural history, national pride and identity. The Spaniards sometimes speak of going to Europe on holiday. The Roman Empire, some of the time, seems more Spanish, or at least Iberian, than European. I think it best if all these cultures, and the cultural and historical moments that define them, are allowed their distinctions, allowed to coexist in mutual enrichment, like the differences in climate and terrain, from which they spring.
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Location:Rua da Alegria,Porto,Portugal