Around a fire


Sometime over Christmas, a friend dragged me to someone’s cousin’s house somewhere in the middle of nowhere for a fiesta–not a fiesta for anything in particular, but a day of feasting nonetheless. There were about 30 people, and I was the only foreigner. Beer—Cruzcampo, free-flowing—began being handed out at 12 noon, long before lunch was served. By 3:00, there was guitar-playing and singing and dancing, and shouts of ¡Olé! all around. By 5:30, they had made a fire, around which the festivities continued, along with suggestions of “getting to know each other better,” or “putting you and my friend together, wink wink,” all made in good faith, and easy enough to refuse.

At 9:00, one of my friends—Spanish, male, inebriated quite—sat next to me and said, in English, and with greater confidence than I had seen him speak English in the years we’d known each other: “Averill, I hope the time will come when you will get to sit in a place like this with the rest of us and not think of it as a group of Spanish people singing Spanish songs and dancing like Spaniards.” He burped, continued: “I hope you will become so immersed in life in Spain that you will see this for what it is: simply, a group of friends sitting around a fire and having fun.”



This is the first post I’m writing from Sevilla. I got here last Tuesday, and have had to live pretty much without internet over the last week. I finally got my connection to work today.

I’ve been spending my days away from everything I’m used to. Here my mobile phone is virtually useless, and I hate using it. (I guess I hated using it in Manila as well anyway.) I’ve been speaking Spanish more than 80 percent of the time–I catch myself now beginning to think thoughts in Spanish, however basic they may be, and I feel this is good progress. Instead of rice and ulam, I have an abundance of cheeses and breads for meals. I’ve been learning to get around on foot, by bus, by metro, and occasionally on my friend’s Vespa. I guess the material comfort I miss the most from my life in Manila is driving my own car. I enjoy my commutes of course, the city is absolutely lovely, but I felt so much more in control of my life when I could come and go as I pleased. Here I feel I am, in a frightening, abstract way, at the mercy of bus schedules and metro stops, of taxis that may or may not pass through. I’ve been able to go everywhere I’ve wanted without much difficulty, without knowing very much about anything. I feel braver, but also more fragile than I’ve ever felt. I’ve never thought of myself as fragile, but I suppose being away from all the things and people who make one feel secure has its own profound effects on one’s temperament.

Spanish lunch: salmorejo, jamon iberico y huevos de perdiz (partridge eggs!) on bread

Spanish lunch: salmorejo, jamon iberico y huevos de perdiz (partridge eggs!) on bread

I have plenty of friends here, more friends than most people do when they move to a new country, I suppose, but I’ve been inevitably spending more of my time alone. I haven’t been as lonely as I expected to be. Mostly I marvel at what an amazing thing it is to be able to pick up and leave and begin an entirely new life in an entirely new language. It makes me wonder what things really make up a life–possessions, relationships, ideas, activities, memories; makes me try to guess at the substance of each individual. What are you and who are you when all you have ever known and been are no longer there? Often I feel like Franz the way Milan Kundera described him in The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Franz felt his book life to be unreal. He yearned for real life, for the touch of people walking side by side with him, for their shouts. It never occurred to him that what he considered unreal (the work he did in the solitude of the office or library) was in fact his real life, whereas the parades he imagined to be reality were nothing but theater, dance, carnival–in other words, a dream.

Maybe all I really am is all that’s here in my head, and even though I’ve moved here to Sevilla, to a place where I long to “be my other self,” I am cursed and blessed to be this same person in the realm of my real life–the life I live in solitude–regardless of my context, and people walking side by side with me, their shouts, are far removed, and cannot really touch me.

Notes from the far side of the world

An earlier version of this article was published in the Manila Bulletin on April 4, 2012.

I write this from a computer I can hardly operate, hoping to make it in time for the Manila deadline. The document is entitled “Sin Titulo 1.” I have been on six flights to five cities in three weeks: it is the first time I have ever traveled alone, and the farthest I have ever been from home. Most importantly, no European romances have yet materialized for me; I don’t understand how they always happen in the movies during trips like this.

Still, there have been many other things I’m understanding better: the Spanish language, myself, my country, the world outside it and the worlds within. More than anything, I know for sure that San Miguel Beer is the best beer in the world.

Traveling has been fun, especially because I’m young: I’m curious enough to want to see things (like my first Picasso or Gaudi or real flamenco), stubborn enough to go find them (with a map, on foot or by bus or metro, and getting lost an obligatory five times), and naïve enough to be endlessly amazed by them when I do.

Barça briefs, anyone?

Barça briefs, anyone?

But what they don’t often tell you is that traveling is also, essentially, a lonely thing. It’s hard to be talkative when there’s no one to talk to, when no one understands (literally–lo siento, no lo entiendo). Sooner or later you will find that there is no one to call, even when you know locals or are traveling with a group, and you will have to learn that it’s okay.

To travel is to go an adventure in solitude. You must be able to sit with yourself for long periods of time without going crazy, and I’ve had only moderate success in this area. I’ve taken to writing more, and drinking more (which, in wine country, is acceptable behavior). Sometimes, I’d wake up in the early morning hours, check my watch, and catch myself singing, “It’s five o’clock in the morning / the conversation got boring…” Other than that, I think I’m okay.

Once, I had to buy moisturizer from the local drugstore to keep my skin from freezing to death. The saleslady and I spent several minutes pointing back and forth from L’Oreal to Olay to Ponds to Nivea. She was trying to give me facial scrub, I was trying to say, “I may have pimples but that’s not what I’m looking for.” Finally she got the hang of the charade, pointed to a moisturizer with an English translation, dia y noche, I answered si, and paid for it. I think it was the longest time I ever spent shopping. The point is that I was able to shop.

Because while cultural and linguistic barriers block you off and cause severe difficulty in some places (purchasing moisturizer, for instance), one of the most pleasant discoveries I’ve made in my adventures is that the desire to communicate can transcend these limits.

During my trip I paid a visit to the Andalucía, the replica of a 17th century Galleon ship, which incidentally visited the Philippines back in 2010. One of the engineers who built the Andalucía and actually sailed to Manila on it (which is enough material for another column altogether) proudly gave me a tour and talked animatedly, incessantly, the whole morning. He fumbled every so often, trying to find the right word in English, and I listened and understood. They were stories–of how it was built, how they first set sail, the inside jokes among the crew, the run-ins with sharks and fires and pirates that aren’t supposed to happen in real life but do. They had been many places, and had plenty of stories to tell, all surprising and amusing, and I wondered how much funnier or more exciting they would be if I could grasp them in their original language.

But perhaps the stories themselves were the language. Perhaps Spanish and English are too small to contain them. Everyone understands stories. In a way, I think, traveling is about finding stories to tell.

Because no good story every started with eating a salad.

Because no good story every started with eating a salad.

While walking across a bridge over a quiet river, my engineer friend asked me to stop and look up into the vast night sky. The streetlights burned bright; I couldn’t see the stars so clearly.

“Light pollution,” he muttered.

I strained to look as he, with sailor’s eyes, began pointing out different constellations, starting with Orion’s Belt. The pinpricks were faint, but they were there. I had never seen them before. We have always had them in our sky back home.

“Not all those who wander are lost,” wrote Tolkien truthfully in The Lord of the Rings. Ultimately, we wander in order to make our way home. I’m excited to come back. I’m no balikbayan, but I think I’ll join in the clapping when my plane touches ground in Manila.

It’s simple, you see: San Miguel Beer is the best beer in the world.