The April Fair in Seville

I arrived at my new job in Spain in January, 1985. In March a coworker, Elena, told me about the feria that is held in April in Seville. She said that a friend of hers leaves town for a week to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the fiesta, and was willing to let Elena and friends use the apartment. Being a government employee, I was attached to the US Embassy, and they always took care of my travel arrangements. So I asked the Embassy travel section to arrange the rental of a van for our trip to Seville.
Our group included Elena, her husband, Juan, Jacinto, and me. Juan is from Valdepeñas, about two and a half hours south of Madrid and it just so happens to be on the path to Sevillia. Now Valdepeñas is famous for their bodegas – their wineries. So, of course we had to make a stop so everyone could buy some wine. That small task accomplished we proceeded on to Sevilla, another four hours further South.

When we arrived in Sevilla, there was a good bit of traffic, it was dark, and there are a lot of one way streets in the center, making navigation somewhat difficult. Elena’s husband said he knew the way and would be glad to drive us there, so I turned over the wheel to him. However, I did not realize that everyone in the back of the van had been passing the previous four hours tasting the wine from Valdepeñas. And it turned out Elena’s husband was quite happy.

Right after Elena’s husband took the wheel, he cut off another car, and the driver was quite irate, although I seemed to be the only one to notice. Soon we came to a red light and the car that had been cut off was two cars in front of us. The driver got out of his car, slammed the door shut and began stomping towards us, hands clutched into fists. But as he approached, he stooped to look and began slowing his pace. As it registered to him from the silhouettes just how many of us there were in the van, he had second thoughts and turned and returned to his car.

I began to think – the Embassy had arranged the rental, I was the only one on the insurance authorized to drive, the current driver was inebriated, and we had almost had an accident followed by almost having a driver rage fight. What had I done? To fast forward a half hour, we made it to the apartment, found a parking place (also difficult in the center of town), and were comfortably relaxing in the apartment.

The next day – to the feria, the fair. There is a huge fairground, almost like a separate city, with over 1000 casetas – tent structures – are set up every year. During the day there are many horses and horse carriages promenading the streets. The women wear Sevillanas dresses, long and colorful with lots of ruffles. The men also dress up, with smart vests and top hats. The horses at the fair are also decked out, with braided manes and tails and various colored embroidered touches here and there. Many in Madrid cautioned me that the fair in Sevilla was really only for the locals, because almost none of the casetas are open to the public – they are reserved for family and friends only. However, Elena’s friend that had lent us her apartment had also provided names of several casetas where she knew the owners and we would be welcome.

The casetas were full of sherry, serrano ham, fried fish, grilled shrimp, and much more. There was lots of music and dancing of Sevillanas, a form of flamenco. To me, Sevillanas are much more alegre – happy and joyful – than regular flamenco. In Spain, diet coke is called coca cola light. One of my best friends, Juan, is from Sevilla and refers to Sevillanas as “flamenco light.”

But that night I found out that being a foreigner, with an expensive camera and camera bag with various lenses, and with a big smile were often plenty to be invited into a caseta. I also noticed later that Jacinto and Juan seemed rather animated at several of the casetas, and at those casetas the people were very hospitable, posing as requested for some good photos. I was just beginning to learn Spanish and had not noticed what Jacinto and Juan had been up to – but they shared with me the next week back at work that they had been telling everyone that I was from Newsweek to take pictures for the magazine in the USA. They seemed surprised that I had not realized what they were up to.

Another symptom of my lack of proficiency in Spanish surfaced after my return to work in Madrid. Several times I would tell a Spanish coworker that I had just come back from the feria, only to have the coworker respond with a “huh?” After repeating the statement several times, finally the coworker would say, “oh, the fair in Sevialla.” On about the fourth coworker I shared with, he explained that I was mispronouncing “feria.” My Spanish teacher had explained that he accent of most words fell on the next to last syllable, so I was saying the word while accenting the “i,” and the proper pronunciation has the accent was on the “fer.” That this small difference would render the word unknown to my coworkers amazed me. But, the tables later were often turned, when a Spanish friend would say something to me in English that I did not recognize due to one letter pronounced differently, or the accent placed incorrectly. I came to appreciate how delicate it can be speaking a foreign language.

Speaking of magazines and the fair, I returned to the fair a couple years later on my own, and one gentleman in a caseta invited me in and wanted to show me the April 1951 National Geographic magazine. There on page 513 was a photo of his wife, dressed for Semana Santa (Holy or Easter Week), a couple weeks prior to the fair. She was dressed in a black dress with a black lace mantilla draped over a high tortoise-shell comb at the back of her head. She had a couple red flowers at her ear, and a couple more at the neckline of her dress. The author of the article noted that most Spanish girls are brunettes, but some, like his wife, are blonds – perhaps reflecting some Visigoth ancestry.

What a great way to begin my ten-year tour working in Spain. Olé the fiesta!